China coronavirus: outbreak wreaks havoc on Lunar New Year travel plans, hitting family reunions

He Huifeng

The coronavirus outbreak in the city of Wuhan that has spread across the country is threatening to wreak havoc on Lunar New Year travel plans, at a time when many Chinese people journey to their hometowns for family reunions.

People from Wuhan and its landlocked province of Hubei were officially asked to cancel plans to travel back to the region, amid fears that the virus would be spread further. On Wednesday morning, it was confirmed to have killed nine people and infected 440 others.

Sisi Chen, an office worker in Shenzhen and a Wuhan native, said the outbreak has caused her to skip her annual family reunion for the first time in nearly a decade.

“My parents are in their fifties and are very scared [of the virus]. They told me to stay in Shenzhen,” she said. “I am an only child and this will be the first Lunar New Year holiday that I will spend without my parents.”

Lisa Gao, who works for an overseas branch of a Chinese technology company, flew back to Guangzhou on Monday and had planned to take a connecting high-speed train on to her hometown of Xiangyang in the northern part of Hubei province.

However, she decided instead to take a direct flight from Foshan, a neighbouring city of Guangzhou, to Xiangyang to reduce the travel time and avoid stopping in Wuhan en route home.

“Foshan and Xiangyang are small cities, not transport hubs. I think it will be safer,” Gao said. “I will not go anywhere except my parents’ flat during the holiday, but I just have to be with them for the Lunar New Year holiday.”

The Chinese government is urging people not to travel to or from Wuhan, a decision intended to curb the spread of the virus. Among the 440 confirmed cases, 370 have been reported in the province of Hubei, with most of those in Wuhan.

Zhang Hong, who runs a consultancy in Shanghai, said one of her employees was determined to return to his hometown of Wuhan for a family reunion over the holiday.

"I could not stop him, but will let him work from home for at least two weeks before coming back to Shanghai,” said Zhang.

The coronavirus means that personal and business trips to Wuhan, a city with a population larger than London and a key transport hub in central China, are set to plunge.

Many are also reconsidering their travel plans elsewhere in China, with confirmed and suspected cases now spread to half of the country. On Wednesday, the first confirmed cases were also reported in Hong Kong and Macau.

Wendy Liu, an operations manager in Shenzhen, cancelled plans to visit a hot spring resort in the city of Huizhou in Guangdong province. “We will definitely not go anywhere – we will stay at home,” said Liu.

A staff member checks passengers' body temperature at Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei province. Transport hubs inside and outside China have setup screening facilities to try and detect the virus. Photo: Xinhua

Many Chinese people have fresh memories of the deadly Sars outbreak in 2003. Confirmation from Zhong Nanshan, an 84-year-old virus expert who rose to nationwide fame for his role in fighting Sars, that the coronavirus can be transmitted from human to human, has led many to take every possible precautionary step, including wearing facial masks and avoiding crowded public places.

E-commerce platforms in China were forced to make public announcements on Tuesday to stem public anxiety that supplies of surgical masks were running low.

Travel hubs have been stepping up their screening for the virus, both inside and outside of China. Changi Airport in Singapore, for instance, has installed 35 scanners to detect high temperatures among all passengers arriving from China. Cathay Pacific, meanwhile, has authorised all crew and frontline airline staff to wear surgical masks on all routes.

Chinese social media channels have been heating up with discussions on how to safely spend the holiday season without leaving your home.

“Do not dare go travelling – stay at home so you will not spread the outbreak, even if you will make a financial loss,” wrote one Weibo user, who planned to travel with her parents to Beijing from Taiyuan city in Shaanxi province, but posted pictures of cancellation notifications for tickets for trains and passes for Beijing’s tourist attractions.

“Although our clothes and baby’s diapers were already sent home, [spending] eight hours on the high-speed rail and going through Wuhan is risky,” wrote another Guangzhou-based user, who had planned to visit her parents in Zhengzhou in Henan province. “[Now] we will even not go to the Lunar New Year market in Guangzhou.”

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