China's rural health sector caught out by Lunar New Year Covid surge

With the fewest restrictions in three years, domestic travel increased 99.5% from last year, sparking fears of the virus spreading from cities to rural areas

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Health centres and crematoriums across rural China are feeling the strain from a surge of Covid-19 amid a Lunar New Year travel boom.

After three years of pandemic disruption and strict government measures, including mass testing and expansive lockdowns, China has encouraged and, at times, forced city residents to avoid travelling for work to minimise the spread of infection.

No more. As China hastily and inscrutably dropped such measures in December, the demand for travel escalated.

Within 24 hours of Beijing announcing the end of mandatory quarantine for international arrivals starting on January 8 — just over a week before the Lunar New Year — bookings for inbound flights to mainland China increased by 412 per cent.

A substantial growth of Covid infections has followed, clouding the annual festivities. Official statistics show nearly 60,000 people died from Covid in this recent bout of outbreaks.

Accurate numbers are hard to come by but international organisations estimate a far worse picture.

Airfinity, a data firm in the UK, puts China's daily infection number at 4.5 million with more than 35,000 deaths a day. It says 134 million cases have likely been logged across the country since December 1, with more than 880,000 deaths.

Megacities that have the highest density of population were hit hardest by the first wave due to the ease of viral transmission but authorities warned rural areas would be next as travel numbers soared.

As the army of travellers began their trips, the strain on the underdeveloped and short-staffed healthcare sector in rural areas has become more apparent.

In one clinic in Zhongjiang in the south-western Sichuan province, Lunar New Year celebrations have been soured as medics contend with the worst Covid outbreak in the township yet.

Quan, a village doctor who preferred to be only known by his surname, said the number of patients, especially the elderly, increased dramatically as soon as travel restrictions were lifted.

“We can’t tell these people that they have Covid because they will be so scared,” Quan said, referring to many people who had likely contracted the virus from their relatives returning from cities.

“And none of us [medics] really have any experience treating the disease so all we can do is give them painkillers.”

In the same town, crematoriums are working round the clock to handle the surge of deaths.

Higher death tolls are typically recorded in winter, but according to one person who works at a crematorium in Zhongjiang, who asked not to be named, the number of deaths was “unusually high” and that “obviously” could be attributed to the Covid surge.

“Some people have to call us a few days in advance to make an appointment for the cremation and that has never happened before,” he said.

Despite the alarming rise in cases, some say the fear of Covid has passed as a result of the already prevalent infections across the nation before the travel rush.

Thanks to the Omicron variant’s unparalleled transmissibility and the Chinese population’s virtually non-existent natural immunity from previous infections, a significant number of people in mainland China had already been infected with the virus at a speed almost unseen anywhere else in the past three years.

Covid patients fill ICUs in China's hospitals

Covid patients fill ICUs in China's hospitals

The season has also brought joy for some, however, as millions were reunited with family members.

For the first time in three years, Shuxia Wang celebrated the Lunar New Year with her family in China’s north-western Gansu province after travelling from Beijing, where she lives.

“I’m so excited to finally be able to see my family,” she said over the phone as she was spending time with her son at a park. “The worst has gone.”

For many who had left China and were effectively denied the means to return due to prolonged quarantine and expensive air fares, it was the day they had yearned for years.

“I’m finally going back home after three years away!” Daria Niu, a Shanghai native who is now studying in the UK, wrote on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media platform. “I need to eat as much Chinese food as I can at the Lunar New Year dinner party!”

On the domestic front, an estimated 2.09 billion trips will be made during the 40-day Lunar New Year travel rush (from January 7 to February 15) – a 99.5 per cent jump from last year, reaching 70.3 per cent of pre-pandemic 2019 levels, according to the Vice Minister of Transportation Chengguang Xu.

“Travel demand very soon responded to the change of anti-pandemic policies,” said Ryan Qiu, a data analyst at, a China-based travel website. “The Lunar New Year travel rush was expected and the numbers we are seeing are very reflective of people’s confidence in travelling again.”

The boom is currently the biggest human migration on the planet.

Before Wang returned to Gansu, she had already contracted and recovered from the virus. All of her family members had also been infected.

“The last three years felt like a nightmare and all I hope is that our lives will be better from now,” she said.

Updated: January 27, 2023, 1:36 PM