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Coronavirus

Chinese New Year tests COVID control as millions hit the road

Travelers head home in annual mass exodus though strict measures deter some

Passengers wait to embark on home-bound trips for Lunar New Year at Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station on Jan.  28.    © AP

SHANGHAI -- Migrant workers in cities across China have begun their annual pilgrimage home for Lunar New Year celebrations despite government advice to stay put.

An average of 28.8 million people per day are expected to depart by road and air transport during the 40-day peak travel period that began Thursday, although the official break for the New Year, which falls on Feb. 12 this year, is seven days.

The government on Thursday downgraded its projection for the period to 1.15 billion passenger trips from 1.5 billion. The number is 20% less than last year and 60% below the year before but still substantial amid pockets of coronavirus outbreaks nationwide.

The country recorded 52 new cases on Thursday, of which 36 cases were local infections while the rest were people who returned from abroad. The number has been trending downward from a high of over 100 daily cases in past weeks.

But officials continued to plead for people to play a role in curbing infections during the holiday period. Avoiding travel is "the greatest support for the prevention efforts," Zhao Chenxin, spokesperson of the National Development and Reform Commission, said on Wednesday.

While measures varies from one local government to another, some authorities have put in place strict rules including requiring multiple COVID-19 tests and 14-day hotel quarantines each way.

"It is too annoying," said Xia Li, a Shanghai housekeeper, of the preventive measures. Xia gave up celebrating with her family in Anhui Province, some 280 km away. "I just don't have the paid leave to afford a total of 28 days quarantine, not to mention the cost," she said.

Also known as the Spring Festival, Lunar New Year is an occasion for family reunions and is considered the most important holiday for Chinese, especially for some 286 million migrant workers like Xia, who has two teenage children in Anhui but has not been home for two years.

Zheng Kang, a ride-hailing driver, made up his mind two months ago to return to Wuhan. "There is less work, after all, during the festive season," Zheng said at the Shanghai railway station.

Unlike during the initial outbreak last year, the government is not shutting down travel completely in a bit to avoid hampering an economic recovery. But the expected mass movement of people will test the existing control measures that include inoculating people with COVID-19 vaccines.

The shot plan seems to be behind schedule. Officials had said they wanted to jab about 50 million people, especially those working in high-risk sectors, by Lunar New Year. But only 22.8 million doses had been administered as of Tuesday, according to government data. That points to a total of 11.4 million people being vaccinated as each person requires two jabs within a 14-day period.

Beijing-based economic research company Trivium said that China is unlikely to reach full inoculation in 2021, projecting 850 million doses would be administered by the end of the year.

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