Opinion

Chinese New Year, a history of COVID-19

As Chinese New Year is approaching, it is worth reflecting on how different this year’s celebrations will be for everyone worldwide. I don’t want to dwell on how times have changed within this year of the rat too much. Yet, recently I stumbled across the latest Chinese Coca-Cola advertisement produced in the run-up to the Chinese New Year celebrations. This four-minute spot pictured reunited families that were so happy to meet for the most important annual event after being deprived of these precious moments last year. Are these reunions going to be a reality? Certainly not in the United Kingdom. So, let’s have a look at how we got here, starting from last year’s cancelled Chinese New Year in China, and looking at the early stages of the pandemic, where none of us expected coronavirus to have any impact on our lives. Yes, I too made jokes about it, not imagining for a second that I’d be affected by this…

When Western news outlets had just begun reporting on COVID, the Chinese were already facing the consequences of what was to become a pandemic. These consequences manifested themselves through an unprecedented cancellation; that of the celebrations into the year of the rat (starting on the 24th of January). Chinese New Year –  otherwise known as the Spring Festival –  are celebrations usually at the root of the largest annual human migration globally with an estimated 2.9 billion journeys travelled within a month. This was an unprecedented cancellation in China, with millions of people not being allowed to travel home and see their relatives.36 million people in the province of Hubei were in what would later be known as a lockdown. However, the western world and its media hardly noticed that cancellation and certainly did not see it as a warning signal. The New York Times was writing about a “mysterious respiratory virus”, and the BBC was reporting 3 cases in Europe. 

After mostly not acknowledging the scale and significance of the CNY’s cancellation in China, we carried on with our daily lives. Roughly a week later on the 6th of February, an article in the Cherwell was telling us: “Don’t panic […] these outbreaks are containable […] the news is not as bad as you’d think […] the future’s looking bright.” Of course, the author of the article couldn’t have known and therefore isn’t to blame. After all, Health Secretary Matt Hancock too didn’t know, claiming that the country was well-equipped if any cases were to appear in the United Kingdom didn’t seem more worried. Could he have known? No actions were to be taken against the spread for another month. In that time, sporadic cases started to emerge around Europe, but that did not discourage nor restrict the organisation of events that would draw thousands of people together. In hindsight, this lack of action had been a failure from Western leaders, and its consequences were no longer that far away. 

The Spring Festival cancellation should have been a strong enough signal for action. In a world where a single Boeing 747 can transport 416 passengers from Beijing to London within half a day, it was ludicrous to pretend that coronavirus wasn’t a direct threat to us.  However, on the surface, the month of February remained mostly undisturbed by the virus’s spread. In this context, many big events were held in Europe and the United States, proving to be fatal. The town of Heinsberg in North Rhine-Wesphalia, has been nicknamed “Germany’s Wuhan”, after being recognised as a first significant cluster in the country beginning of March 2020. The surge in infections there has been linked to the carnival celebrations which took place between the 20th and the 25th of March. 

In Italy, the Champions league’s match that opposed Bergamo’s team (Atalanta FC and FC Valencia) on the 19th of February was partly responsible for the tragedy that hit this province of northern Italy. On this day, more than 44,000 football fans from Bergamo travelled to Milan to support what was the biggest game in the club’s history. However, having a third of the province gathered in a stadium and significantly more in bars that night to witness their teams 4-1 victory, is what for many – including the mayor of Bergamo – was the catalyst for what was to become one of the darkest scenes of the pandemic. Lombardy became one of the worst-hit regions on the planet, with not only hospitals failing to cope, but also funeral services and the crematorium.

In France too, the spread of the virus was accelerated by one large gathering.. The annual “week of prayer and fasting” of the Megachurch Christian Open Door Church took place between the 17th and the 21st in Alsace which turned into a mega-spreading event, causing approximately 2’500 infections. This increase in cases led to an overcrowding of hospitals in this area (Grand Est). Patients had to be transferred to Swiss and German hospitals. Furthermore, impact went beyond the French metropolitan borders, as cases linked to this event were found in neighbouring countries (Switzerland, Germany) and overseas in Corsica, French Guiana, and Burkina Faso. These few examples show how easy it is for the virus to circulate at big events which attract people from different areas. It raises the question, why were these events not cancelled when the first transmissions within Europe were detected?

I am not suggesting that cancelling these events would have stopped the progression of the pandemic all together. Still, it would have prevented the rapid local surges seen in Alsace, Bergamo, and Heinsberg, where it was the momentum of the spread that overwhelmed hospitals and led to unusually high death rates. However, what puzzles me most is how some governments did not learn from their past errors or those of other governments after a devastating first wave. The prime example for this is the relaxation of restrictions over Christmas in the United Kingdom and European countries, where despite the knowledge of a rampant new variant, politicians decided to unite their strengths to desperately “save Christmas”, which subsequently revealed itself to be incompatible with the previous message “save lives”. Of course, it would have been harsh not to allow families and friends to gather during a period that means so much to many of us, but was it worth destroying the results achieved in the previous lockdown through ineffective and unenjoyable compromises involving clumsy household counting? Would it not have been preferable to sustain our efforts, to get back to “normal” sooner and therefore be allowed to all come together sooner? After all, Diwali and Eid had been cancelled, many important national and international events had been postponed (Olympic games, Euro), so wouldn‘t it have been reasonable to do the same for 2020‘s Christmas given the circumstances? 

Well, most European governments decided otherwise, and as a result, most Western countries are still facing the worst-case and death numbers they’ve ever had, but hey, who cares “Christmas was saved”. Or was it even? It only brought false hopes for most UK citizens as 44 million citizens were ultimately put into tier 4 just a few days before Christmas.  Nonetheless, the damage had been done, and in the first week of January, the number of cases were at an all-time high in London, with one in 30 being infected. So perhaps the attempts to save Christmas weren’t exactly worth it.

Meanwhile, some countries are on a path to recovery, thanks to more pragmatic measures. In China, where it all started, Chinese New Year celebrations will occur although the government has advised people not to travel between cities so that it won‘t be like in the Coca-Cola advertisement for everyone. In places like Australia, and Singapore, where there’s a big Chinese community, people will also be able to celebrate as they have seen their numbers fall drastically and stabilise at all-time lows. This only shows that with coherent measures and restrictions, it is possible to contain the spread. Perhaps governments over here will understand it at some point, let‘s just hope it doesn‘t take another three waves.