Chen Ling could barely contain her excitement as the bullet train from Beijing rolled into Zhengzhou East railway station in central China’s Henan province.
It was an afternoon, just a few days before the beginning of this week’s Lunar New Year festivities, and the train was crowded but Chen Ling could not have cared less.
The 29-year-old was happy to be one of the many millions of people travelling across China to visit family for one of the most celebrated festivals in China’s calendar.
Chen Ling had not visited her parents and hometown located outside Zhengzhou since 2019 – before China’s draconian “zero-COVID” policy had prevented people from travelling.
“I was only thinking about seeing my family again,” she told Al Jazeera in an interview via the Chinese social media platform WeChat.
“I couldn’t keep back my tears when I saw them,” Chen Ling said. “Neither could my mom when I hugged her for the first time in over three years,” she said, recounting how she hurried off the train and beat a path across the teeming station to find her parents waiting outside the main entrance.
With the recent and rapid dismantling of the deeply-unpopular zero-COVID policy, families across China are reuniting for the first time in years to celebrate the Lunar New Year holidays.
Many, such as Chen Ling, are ecstatic. She said that if she had been told just a few months ago she would be reunited with her family for the holiday, she would not have believed it.
But many are also afraid that Lunar New Year holiday travel – described as the world’s largest annual migration of humans – will result in vulnerable family members being exposed to the spread of COVID-19 in remote hometowns.
After three Lunar New Year holidays – from 2020 to 2022 – when travel restrictions, as well as quarantine and testing requirements, kept so many Chinese families apart, some are grappling with a difficult decision: Should they continue to keep their distance from vulnerable loved ones during this year’s holiday?
It’s a dilemma with no simple answer.
‘I miss them and really want to go home’
Zhang Jie, 35, is among the many Chinese people who feel that reuniting with family is not so simple.
“Even though it is possible now, I will not visit my family for Lunar New Year,” Zhang Jie told Al Jazeera from Shanghai.
Zhang Jie’s parents and grandparents live in the same household in his hometown, which is a small village not far from Wuhan. He is afraid he might unknowingly bring the coronavirus with him if he joins the crowds heading back home for the festivities.
“None of them have had COVID and my grandparents are old and unvaccinated so, even though I miss them and really want to go home, I decided not to risk it,” he told Al Jazeera.
Instead, he will stay in Shanghai and celebrate the New Year with some friends who, like him, are forgoing family visits out of fear for the lives of their elderly relatives if they were to travel to visit them now.
China’s President Xi Jinping expressed a similar sentiment in a speech on Thursday.
“I am worried most about the rural areas and farmers,” Xi said.
“Medical facilities are relatively weak in rural areas, thus prevention is difficult and the task is arduous,” he said, emphasising that ensuring the health and safety of the elderly had to now be prioritised.
There have been countless stories in Chinese state media of medical resources being diverted towards rural hospitals and clinics preparing for a surge in infections in small towns and the countryside.
Yet, China’s strictly-controlled state media has also reported that the COVID-19 wave the country is now experiencing may have peaked, after striking cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai immediately after restrictions began to be lifted in early December. China’s National Health Commission also recently revealed that some 60,000 people had died from the virus since early December, though the commission believed that the “emergency peak” of the latest surge appeared to have passed, according to media reports.
Others have a more stark assessment of the situation. According to a recently updated analysis by the London-based health research firm Airfinity, China could see approximately 36,000 deaths a day during the Lunar New Year, with travellers being the leading catalyst in spreading the virus westward.
Stay or go?
Given the many years they had already spent separated, several people told Al Jazeera they were willing to take the risk and visit family members over the Lunar New Year period.
They had their own COVID risk-mitigation strategies, which involved minimising contacts and undergoing a mini, self-imposed quarantine in the lead-up to their departure day.
They also said they tried to take the most direct route possible to their destinations to avoid contact with others and, where possible, avoiding public transportation altogether by travelling in private vehicles.
But some were still conflicted about what to do this weekend.
Liu Hong, 28, was very unsure whether to stay in Guangzhou where she is based or travel to visit her family in Lanzhou in north-central China to celebrate the new year.
“I don’t want to spread COVID, least of all to my family members, but I also really miss my parents and my grandparents after three years of separation,” Liu Hong told Al Jazeera.
“It’s not just that I miss my family,” she explained.
“My grandfather is sick with cancer and doesn’t have much time left so if I don’t go see him now in Lanzhou, I might never get the chance,” she said.
Unable to make such a momentous decision, Liu Hong said that she had told her grandmother and grandfather – the two most COVID-vulnerable members of her family – of her dilemma and asked them to decide.
Liu Hong’s grandparents gave her a speedy and very definite answer.
“They told me that I was being ridiculous and that of course I should come home.”