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Coronavirus makes for dismal lunar new year for Wuhan residents

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Via Financial Times

The lunar new year is traditionally a time for food, fun and family reunion across China. But for Wuhan resident Tang Yong, this year’s festivities were marked with fear.

“During the New Year, we are meant to feel happy. But this year was lonely and no one was around. We are becoming more and more worried,” said Ms Tang, 27, a marketing worker who lives with her parents in the central Chinese city that is the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak. “I don’t have a festive feeling,” she added. 

The lunar new year is the biggest annual festival in China but this week’s nationwide celebrations have been hit hard by the outbreak. Disruptions were heaviest in Hubei, the province that includes Wuhan and where authorities have imposed a lockdown on more than 40m people.

In Wuhan this weekend, the streets were quiet as most people followed government advice to remain indoors. Ms Tang did not dare venture out to see relatives or stock up on lotus root — a key component of New Year’s eve meals in Hubei. “I stayed home for five days and I will stay home …basically for the whole spring festival,” she said. 

Food was mostly well-supplied. On New Year’s eve on Friday, a Carrefour supermarket in central Wuhan was busy with customers, with a sign at its entrance reading “we promise not to run out of goods or raise prices”. But the mood was downbeat. 

“There will be a different atmosphere for this New Year because we will not be having fun outside. We can only give our relatives New Year wishes over the phone,” said one man in his late 30s surnamed Wang, who carried a basket of fresh vegetables. 

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Wuhan resident Sally Zhang, who works in a real estate company, usually gathers with up to 20 family members on New Year’s eve. But this year she was spending the festival with just her husband, children and parents in law. 

“The atmosphere is tense, everyone feels at risk, and there are significantly fewer people moving around the neighbourhood. Children are not going outside,” she said. 

Instead of the usual family conversation and card games, Ms Zhang joined hundreds of millions in watching the annual New Year gala on state television, which featured a live link-up with a Wuhan hospital, alongside the usual glamorous song and dances.

As the programme was broadcast, the hashtag “New Year’s Eve in the intensive care unit” trended on Chinese social media service Weibo. One often reposted social media comment read: “Can you please send a responsible leader to Hubei?”

Neither President Xi Jinping or members of the ruling party’s elite politburo standing committee have made public appearances in Hubei since the outbreak began.

Instead of usual new year greetings, one of the most posted articles on China’s top social media service WeChat was a call to donate masks and medical items to hospitals in Wuhan. Another widely reposted article called for the city’s mayor to be sacked. It was promptly censored.

Nationwide, millions decided to call off large-scale family gatherings at home, cancelled books for restaurant meals with families and tourist trips after cities shut down tourist attractions and New Year events, such as fairs held at temples. 

This picture taken on January 25, 2020 shows a man wearing a protective facemask to help stop the spread of a deadly SARS-like virus which originated in the central city of Wuhan looking at messages left by people for the Lunar New Year at Jingshawn Park overlooking the Forbidden City in Beijing. - Fearing a repeat of SARS, China has dramatically scaled back celebrations and travel associated with the New Year holiday, which began on January 24, while tourist sites like Beijing's Forbidden City and a section of the Great Wall have closed as a precaution. (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP) (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)
A man reads traditional lunar new year messages in Beijing. Cities across China shut down tourist attractions and large-scale events amid the coronavirus outbreak © AFP via Getty Images

To help persuade people to change their plans, an image of a well-known Chinese doctor was shared by mobile phone accompanied with a message that read: “Gatherings create trouble for society, one less meal won’t hurt family ties”. 

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Zhou Ning, a cardiologist from Wuhan Tongji hospital, blogged on how he celebrated lunar new year eve dinner with his parents. But he sat away from them and wore two layers of surgical masks to avoid infecting them. “I just could not break their heart,” he wrote, explaining why he had gone ahead with the meal despite the risk of infection.

For thousands visiting hospitals in Wuhan over the New Year period, the situation was even more stressful. Outside the Red Cross hospital, a woman surnamed Song accompanied her elderly mother who had come down with a fever.

Her husband had been on a work trip outside Wuhan, leaving him stuck outside the city, so she had left her seven-year-old daughter alone at home for most of the day, checking in using WeChat.

“I am not letting my daughter out of the house. I left food and other things she needs for her,” she said. “When I come home I will take a shower straight away, and I won’t even look at her directly when we talk in case I breathe on her.”

With additional reporting by Robin Yu in Hong Kong and Selena Li

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