Irural china, the story of this month’s Lunar New Year will be told in two colors: festive red and mourning white. For many country folks, the holiday — which falls on Jan. 22 this year — will mark a return to something close to normal. After a strange virus emerged in the city of Wuhan just weeks before the 2020 Chinese New Year (using another name for the holiday), China has rolled back the epidemic control measures that disrupt each new year.
A pent-up celebration can be felt in a scruffy township next to a busy highway in the southern part of the impoverished central province of Henan.On a recent weekday, locals flocked to street markets selling red couplets, a New Year banner that will be hung above and on both sides of the front door, with couplets written on it, expressing wishes for happiness and health. Other merchants peddled red underwear, which was worn for good luck. Food plentiful: food provided for homecoming and family reunions in honor of the most important holiday, but held back by travel restrictions and a three-year lockdown. Grown-ups and wide-eyed children scrutinize crates of baby oranges, chunks of lamb and pig’s heads, pots of doomed, fishing fish, and wooden wheelbarrows piled high with winter cabbages.
Inside Goulin’s humble hospital, however, there may be glimpses of darker scenes at the same time. While central authorities have stopped publishing reliable covid-19 statistics, there are signs that the virus swept through cities and villages in Henan with alarming speed after controls were lifted on Dec. 7, with infections peaking about two weeks later. Officials in Henan say 89 million of the province’s 100 million people may have been infected with the virus.
At Gulin Hospital, a faded 2016 poster announces that the emergency department employs five doctors and covers a population of 200,000 (compared with 15 emergency room doctors per 100,000 people in the United States). A doctor said the situation had stabilized, although there were still many serious cases. His patients had low expectations. For example, only a few people have heard of Paxlovid. Potent antiviral treatments for the new coronavirus have become an obsession in China’s big cities, with crates of imported drugs changing hands at staggering prices on the black market. Paxlovid is not available in Goulin.Instead, some patients received domestic HIV The treatment, azvudine, was urgently approved in China as a coronavirus treatment despite little solid evidence that it works. To maintain a limited supply, the pharmacy opposite Gulin Hospital sells basic fever-reducing medicines such as ibuprofen in packs of a few pills rather than whole boxes.
As of Jan. 8, China reported a total of 23 deaths from COVID-19 in 2023, an artificially low number that does not include deaths involving other diseases or complications. The real charges are very different. Wanlian——Couple white banners hanging in front of every household——This year, it will inevitably appear in Goulin and surrounding villages. A crematorium in Dengzhou, the nearest county-level city, was still cremating more than 100 people a day, and had processed as many as 160 a day in recent weeks, a funeral worker said. The facility was only processing 30-40 cremations a day before the pandemic, the worker added, reporting he was three times busier than usual, which he blamed on covid.
It is no accident that the inspector is in Henan. When the pandemic started three years ago, he went to Goulin and nearby villages because they were on the border of Hubei province, which is around Wuhan. On January 23, 2020, Hubei “closed the city”. Four days later, the columnist visited Weiji, the last Henan village on the road to Hubei. He found red lanterns and New Year’s banners lighting up the muddy streets, but mostly deserted with fear. With the danger of covid still unknown, tense police officers tested the temperatures of arrivals at checkpoints and turned away all vehicles from Hubei. Neighboring hamlets enclosed themselves behind newly dug barriers. In Weiji, about 200 migrant workers who returned from Wuhan for the New Year in 2020 had to be quarantined at home while village doctors checked them twice a day for fever. Locals at the time described obeying orders as a comfort.
Three years later, residents of Weiji talked about moving. They have just endured a brutal few weeks, with the village doctor estimating that more than 90 percent of the local population has been infected with the new coronavirus after the first case was detected on Dec. 4. Every day, 100 locals flock to Vij’s clinic for saline drips, amino acids and intravenous antibiotics, supplemented by ibuprofen tablets and Chinese herbal remedies (drugs that ease but don’t cure COVID-19). One villager was reported dead. Four others were taken to Gulin Hospital. Locals appear to be focused on returning to normal life. A woman in her 80s sits on the steps of her home shuffling mahjong tiles. During the strictest lockdown in 2020, she recalled, playing mahjong was banned or faced fines. A migrant worker returning home for the New Year compared the coronavirus to “the wind that blows.” Asked if they were worried about returnees bringing the virus, locals scoffed: “We’ve all been infected.”
The brutal divide between China’s urban and rural areas
Asked if clinics were prepared for sudden policy changes, one country doctor instead described how onerous controls had come about late last year. The doctor with an occupational degree said an end to zero COVID-19 and the ensuing surge in cases was inevitable. “Everything has to have a beginning and an end,” she said.
Evidence of official botchedness is evident. In nearby Tongbai County, a two-story isolation center for 1,000 people was empty, with brand new air-conditioning units bolted to the windows. Neighbors reported that it was still under construction since zero-covid ended in December. In such a waste, the largest hospital in Tongbai had no extra beds when the inspector came to visit, and there was no Pax Lowe. As always, rural China is mourning avoidable losses. China may see a second wave in the coming months. But in rural Henan, resignation and the human need for hope are more common than outrage. In the new year, red is more popular than white. ■
Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
China’s Communist Party plans to avoid zero covid reckoning (January 5)
The politics of Xi Jinping’s covid retreat (December 15)
Deathpolitics in China (December 8)
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