Caixin
Jan 22, 2020 08:07 PM
SOCIETY & CULTURE

Wuhan Virus Casts Pall Over Peak Holiday Travel Season

Fears of contagion have punctured the buoyant mood surrounding the holiday, which this year is officially observed from Friday to Jan. 30.
Fears of contagion have punctured the buoyant mood surrounding the holiday, which this year is officially observed from Friday to Jan. 30.
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It’s China’s biggest holiday of the year: a time to return home to eat, drink and be merry with friends and family.

But this year an outbreak of a deadly pneumonia-causing virus is giving many in the country’s cities second thoughts about making the pilgrimage back to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year.

Since December, Chinese health authorities have been grappling with the spread of a previously unknown type of coronavirus, a cousin of the deadly viruses that cause SARS and MERS, as well as various less dangerous ones. As of Wednesday morning, 439 cases had been confirmed in multiple cities across the Chinese mainland, and the official death toll was at nine. A handful of cases have been diagnosed in other countries.

The outbreak coincides with the country’s peak travel season. Hundreds of millions of Chinese people are expected to travel domestically and internationally during the Lunar New Year holiday, with top planner the National Development and Reform Commission expecting some 440 million train trips and 79 million flights between Jan. 10 and Feb. 18, according to a document published on its website in December.

Fears of contagion have punctured the buoyant mood surrounding the holiday, which this year is officially observed from Friday to Jan. 30. That’s been reflected in the markets, where shares in online travel platforms plunged this week. China’s largest travel booking site, Trip.com, saw its stock price fall 13% on Tuesday morning, while shares in the ticket booker it backs, Tongcheng-Elong, fell 7%.

Concerns run deepest among those who plan to travel to Wuhan, the city in Central China where the outbreak originated and most of the confirmed cases are. “Since yesterday morning, I’ve been discussing with my family whether or not to return home (to Wuhan), but haven’t yet made up my mind,” Tan Yue, a Beijing-based investor relations professional who asked to use a pseudonym, said Tuesday. “I’m mainly concerned about what will happen if the outbreak accelerates and I can’t get back to Beijing.”

Others have already made up their minds. Ai Wei, a resident of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, told Caixin that her family had decided not to visit relatives in Wuhan after the Lunar New Year out of concern for their 11-year-old son.

The outbreak has already ruined longstanding plans for some. Last summer, a Beijing-based lawyer surnamed Xu booked tickets to an early January concert in Wuhan. In late December, she read that city authorities had discovered an unknown virus and called in experts to investigate.

“I thought hard about it and decided that if I went to the gig and something happened, it would then be irresponsible of me to go meet my friends in Wuhan,” Xu said. “So, the day before, I cancelled my train ticket and hotel booking, and resold my concert ticket. I probably lost about 500 yuan in total.”

Xu had planned to host her family’s Lunar New Year celebrations at her home in Beijing, but cancelled the festivities due to concerns that her relatives — who hail from Hubei, the province where Wuhan is located — would have to pass through the city on their way to the capital. “I’d already prepared everything for their trip to Beijing. A crosstalk performance, a nice hotel, a temple fair,” she told Caixin. “Not to mention the fruit, meat and vegetables I was keeping at home.”

There are already early signs that fears over the virus’ spread will impact China’s restaurant, entertainment and travel industries as people choose to stay home instead of braving the usual holiday crowds. Shares in such companies slumped Monday, although some businesses in other areas — such as health care and face-mask manufacturing — saw their shares rise.

In contrast to the secrecy that surrounded the SARS epidemic that killed hundreds of people in southern China and Hong Kong in 2002 and 2003, Chinese health authorities have issued regular updates on the state of the new coronavirus outbreak. Nevertheless, some in the country have still bewailed a lack of verifiable information on the virus’ spread.

In recent days, Chinese social media have been overtaken with posts and videos purporting to show new cases, new locations and claimed treatments for the virus. Tan said she had taken to supplementing government statements on the outbreak with Chinese-, English-, and Japanese-language news reports shared on Weibo — China’s popular microblogging site — as well as overseas social media websites like Twitter. “I wouldn’t say I’m dissatisfied (with the level of information transparency), because I don’t know if the government deliberately didn’t tell the public the truth when it discovered the first case in December, or if it genuinely hadn’t verified the state of the virus,” she said.

Stanley Perlman, a coronavirus expert at the University of Iowa’s microbiology and immunology department, urged China to provide greater transparency on the outbreak. “One of the problems with the SARS epidemic was that there wasn’t good transparency and the epidemic probably got more out of hand than it should have. With this one … it looks like the health authorities are releasing a lot of information, but our sense is that they’re not giving all the information,” Perlman said Tuesday in an interview with Caixin.

“It’s only (been) six weeks (since the start of the epidemic), and we already know a lot. I suspect there’s probably more information about numbers of cases, (modes of) transmission and maybe virus sequences,” Perlman added. “The more transparent they can be, the better it’ll be for China and the world. But they’re certainly doing better than during the SARS epidemic.”

Comparisons with SARS are “overdone,” says Jeremy Farrar, a British infectious disease expert who heads the World Health Organization’s R&D Blueprint. “There’s a narrative to say China’s withholding information and I’ve not seen any evidence of that. I’ve been involved in many of the calls with China, with WHO and others … clearly that was an issue with SARS, I’m confident that is not happening here.”

“In the midst of an outbreak like this, wherever you are in the world, it’s always confusing, it’s always difficult,” Farrar told Caixin. What’s often missing at this early stage is “a natural appreciation of the spectrum of illness.”

“With almost every epidemic that I’ve been involved in, the first cases that become obvious are at the more severe end of that spectrum,” Farrar said. “It may well be that the severe cases are people who are at the extremes of age whether very old or very young or with other illnesses that inevitably makes any infection worse.”

That means two things. First, there is likely to be more widespread human transmission than available evidence suggests. And two, when a clear picture emerges of just how many are infected, the spectrum may lean strongly toward the milder end.

With the severity still unknown, the outbreak hasn’t been enough to dissuade some people from going home for the holidays. Yu Lijuan, a Hubei native who currently lives in the southwestern city of Chengdu, told Caixin that she planned to return to her hometown of Jingzhou regardless. “We’ve heard that there are suspected cases there, and perhaps we are a little concerned,” Yu said. “But this is a significant festival, and we have not spent it at home for two years. So, we’ll still go back, but take precautions.”

Contact reporter Matthew Walsh (matthewwalsh@caixin.com) and reporter Flynn Murphy (flynnmurphy@caixin.com) and editor Michael Bellart (michaelbellart@caixin.com)

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