© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People release balloons as they gather to celebrate the New Year amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on January 1, 2023. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang/File Photo
By Martin Quinn Pollard and Engen Thom
WUHAN/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Thousands gathered in central Wuhan on Saturday night to begin what many expected to be the best year since a “difficult” 2022 marked by lockdowns and a major new outbreak of the coronavirus in December. .
As is tradition in the central Chinese city where the epidemic began three years ago, many people threw balloons into the sky as the clocks struck midnight, before taking selfies with their friends.
“In the past year, I feel that the COVID-19 has become more serious and some of my family members have been hospitalized,” a 17-year-old Wuhan high school student, surnamed Wang, told Reuters from the riverbank after midnight.
“Hopefully they will be healthy in the new year. This is the most important thing.
Some were dressed in fancy dress and almost all wore masks as the country saw a wave of Covid spread, which accelerated after the lifting of restrictions, and which has affected a large part of the population, now reaching 9000 deaths a day, according to England-based Health. Data company Airfinity.
“I’m scared,” said a woman surnamed Jin, referring to the possibility of re-infection with Covid-19.
“I was still scared when I came out tonight, but I wanted to come out because everyone else had come out.”
Scores of police officers, SWAT, unidentified plainclothes personnel and other security personnel watched over the crowd, including Jin, who packed particularly tightly in front of the old clock tower in Wuhan’s Hankou Customs House. In late November hundreds of people took to the streets of cities across the country, including Wuhan, to take part in lockdown demonstrations. Following those protests, China abandoned its stringent “Zero Covid” policy of strict restrictions.
“Those restrictions have been in place for a long time, so people may be very unhappy,” said a 24-year-old Wuhan resident, surnamed Chen, who works in e-commerce. “It’s been a long time since things were lively and vibrant.”
The police used loudspeakers at several places and blasted a text message on a loop asking people not to assemble, which people paid little or no attention to.
People wanted to be happy.
“I’m looking forward to the new year, but I’m very nervous,” said Wuhan resident Lily Zhao, 37, who works as a kindergarten teacher. “I wonder when the epidemic will be completely gone.”
In Shanghai, which like many other Chinese cities was placed under a lengthy lockdown in 2022, many flocked to the Bund, a historic riverside promenade.
“We’ve all traveled from Chengdu to celebrate in Shanghai,” said Da Tai, a 28-year-old digital media executive who traveled with two friends. “We already have Covid, so now we feel it’s safe to be happy.” Although enough people bundled up to order the police to direct the flow of people there, local F&B establishments were closed past were less busy than last year.
“It’s not nearly as busy as last year,” said a waiter at the Lost Heaven restaurant near the ball. Some tables were empty, which is not usual on NYE, he declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He said the restaurant had more than 200 bookings, but was usually 20-30% overbooked.
“People are afraid to come out because the COVID policy has been relaxed,” he said. “Hopefully next year will be better.”