Watch CBS News

Chinese greet Year of the Ox with a COVID-conundrum: Risk infecting family, or mark New Year alone

Year of the ox
China discouraging travel during country's biggest holiday period 03:45

Beijing — Many Americans and hundreds of millions of people across Asia were celebrating the Lunar New Year on Friday, kicking off the Year of the Ox. In China, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the traditional rush of people flooding back to their hometowns to reunite with relatives for a week of vacation.

As CBS News Asia correspondent Ramy Inocencio reports from Beijing, millions were stuck with a difficult choice: To stay, or to go?

For Sun Jiayi, it was a go. The writer hopped onto a new high-speed train with her boyfriend in Beijing to head 700 miles south, where her dad was there to greet them at the station in her hometown outside Shanghai.

Back in Beijing, Chan Yuen Yuen decided to stay put. The musician will be stuck as a solo act this Chinese New Year, rattling around alone in her family's four-bedroom home in Beijing — sticking to government "suggestions."

She stays connected with her parents by way of video chat. Since last April, they've remained in their hometown, about 500 miles south of the capital. Her brother is in Boston. 

"Well, I of course feel really lonely and kind of sad," admitted Chan. "But Chinese has a term: lai ri fang chang." It means: "the future is long, and we will have more time."

"So it's okay that we are not together this time," she said.

For millions of people around the world, Chinese New Year is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Western new year all rolled into one. That's how important this holiday is.

A station staff member speaks through a bullhorn to travellers waiting to board their train at Beijing South Railway station ahead of Lunar New Year celebrations following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Beijing
A station staff member speaks through a bullhorn to travelers waiting to board their train at Beijing South Railway station ahead of Lunar New Year celebrations following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease, in Beijing, China, February 10, 2021. THOMAS PETER/REUTERS

Beijing's central railway station would normally be teeming with thousands of people rushing to get home, but this year, not so much.

Inside, workers spray disinfectant and the smell of bleach rises from the floors as people scan their tickets, and then their faces, to board trains.

Many who do choose to return to their ancestral homes in the countryside have to spend two weeks in quarantine — and pay for their own COVID tests. People from low risk areas, which is most of China at this stage, have been urged to stay home.

As incentives, Beijing authorities have given out shopping coupons and free cellular data, and many cities are literally giving away money in "pay-to-stay" programs. One Shanghai company is giving nearly $500 to its employees who stick around.

Outside Shanghai, Sun Jiayi was reunited with her parents. She was able to wish her dad good fortune in person, but she acknowledged that traveling comes with risk, and she worried about the possibility of infecting her family members.

She did a rapid COVID-19 test and got a negative result before she left, but the pressure from family, and thousands of years of tradition, was difficult to deny.

"People should try their best coming home," said her mom.

Outside Beijing's ancient Forbidden City, Chan said it seemed to her that more tourists were in Beijing than during previous New Years.

We asked her parents if they were sad she wasn't coming home.

"No, it's okay," her mom said with a laugh. "The most important thing is to be safe."

A year mired in pandemic may have pushed some Chinese to cling even more fervently to tradition with their families, while others found reason to break those norms and stay away. That's the choice in China for the new Year of the Ox.

Despite all the restrictions and incentives, hundreds of millions of Chinese still decided to travel for this Lunar New Year season. The good news is that the coronavirus is now largely under control in the country where it was first detected, unlike in the United States.

But if there's a surge in cases over the next few weeks, we'll know why.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.