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Passengers arriving from China pass by a COVID-19 testing centre at the Incheon International Airport, on Jan. 10.Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press

Coronavirus cases have peaked in many parts of China, officials said this week, after an explosion of infections following the country’s abrupt decision late last year to abandon its tough zero-COVID approach. But another wave of cases could already be on the way, with more than two billion trips expected around the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, which begins on Jan. 21.

Known as Spring Festival in mainland China, the holiday has been dubbed the world’s largest annual human migration, with millions travelling from cities to the countryside for family gatherings and traditional celebrations. After more than two years of restrictions, this year’s travel period is expected to be even larger than usual, but this will almost certainly result in COVID-19 being spread to parts of the country where the virus has not already reached.

For many younger, urban Chinese, who have lived through mass infections and chaos in recent weeks – with hospitals and funeral homes overrun and staffing shortages in many businesses – this raises a real dilemma: Do they risk travelling and potentially infecting elderly or otherwise at-risk relatives, or spend yet another Spring Festival alone?

Discussion on social media reflected these concerns Thursday, with such trending topics on Weibo as “Will you go home for Spring Festival” along with stresses long familiar to travellers in the West such as, “How long should I isolate for?” and “When do you stop being infectious?”

Speaking to state media on Wednesday, government health adviser Guo Jianwen recommended that “if older people in your home have not been infected yet, my suggestion is that it’s better not to visit them.”

While his comments were widely shared, some expressed frustration at the conflicting messaging coming out of the government, which has struggled both in co-ordinating provincial and local responses to the outbreak, and in massaging the narrative around Beijing’s reversal on zero-COVID after years of some of the toughest restrictions anywhere.

On Monday, Liang Wannian, head of the COVID-19 response team at the National Health Commission, defended the decision to open up in the middle of winter and ahead of the travel rush, saying that waiting until summer would not have worked as this was when many people’s vaccine protection would have been wearing off.

With the current wave peaking in most areas – according to local authorities in multiple major cities and provinces – Prof. Liang said another would be unlikely as a result of the holiday travel.

“After we have gone through this wave, the vast majority of people who are infected will have immunity,” he told state broadcaster CCTV. But Prof. Liang acknowledged that “some elderly people in rural areas do not go out at home and they may be infected during Spring Festival when they meet relatives and friends.”

He added that medical facilities and supplies in rural areas were also “not as good as in cities,” and could be overwhelmed if there is a spike in cases.

This is just what officials in Zhejiang, Fujian and Shandong provinces are predicting, as they issued warnings this week of a new wave of cases that will hit toward the end of this month, after the initial travel period.

Just how bad this may be will likely not be known, however, as China has stopped reporting most COVID-19 cases and changed how it categorizes deaths, resulting in the government reporting only a handful of fatalities a week even as some funeral homes are so busy they have had to build new parking lots, satellite imagery shows.

This lack of transparency has prompted criticism from the World Health Organization and foreign governments, many of which have imposed restrictions or testing requirements on Chinese travellers, and led to growing anger at home as Beijing continues to insist its approach is the only and right way to go.

“China has now further optimized its COVID-19 response strategy, and the most populous nation on Earth is making steady strides back to normal,” state-run news agency Xinhua said Thursday.

Over the weekend, Weibo, the country’s largest social media site, shut down more than 1,000 accounts because they had been critical of pandemic policies. This included popular nationalist bloggers who had long been cheerleaders for zero-COVID.

State media has also attacked foreign reporters for “smearing” the country’s response, with the People’s Daily claiming in an editorial that Western media had been “disrespectful to the facts, disrespectful to science, and irresponsible in the face of history,” in recent reporting on China.

“The government has strong incentives to hide the catastrophe that is unfolding in the wake of its chaotic reopening,” Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese politics at California’s Claremont McKenna College, wrote this week. “It certainly has no wish to take the blame for the lack of preparation for the exit wave of infections that had been widely expected.”

But the scale of the current outbreak, and the human cost of mass infection, cannot easily be hidden, despite China’s near complete control over domestic media and the internet. The government’s response is often so at odds with people’s lived reality that it is perceived as insulting and, worse, incompetent, in a country that has always prided itself on administrative proficiency.

“The sweeping reversal of zero COVID may pacify some of the angry protesters who took to the streets to reject lockdown measures in November, but disquiet and dissent have grown,” Lynette Ong, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, wrote Wednesday.

“China’s system of daily governance, its everyday state power, hinges on public trust. The CCP relies on the willing participation of society at large to implement its policies,” she said, adding the erosion of trust “could shake the very foundation of this system, with wide implications beyond the battle with the virus.”

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