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Chinese around the world welcome the Year of the Rabbit

origin 1A woman poses for a photo next to a light sculpture with a bunny motif during Lunar New Year celebrations in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire/dpa

Chinese around the world ushered in the new year according to the traditional lunar calendar on Saturday evening, as the Year of the Tiger gives way to the Year of the Rabbit on Sunday.

But in China itself, anxiety and loss persist after the recent surge in Covid-19 infections as officials attempt to paint a brighter picture of the health situation.

In Chinese mythology, the rabbit – the fourth of the 12 signs of the zodiac – is synonymous with harmony and longevity. In China, the new year started at midnight (1600 GMT) on Saturday.

This is the first New Year celebration since Beijing’s Communist leadership lifted the country’s strict coronavirus measures, allowing millions of families to gather in person this weekend for the first time in three years.

Most Chinese celebrate the start of the new year with lavish dinners while watching the annual New Year Gala on state television.

Authorities forecast nearly 2 billion passenger trips during the total 40-day travel season, which still accounts for around 70% of pre-pandemic travel volume.

But despite the festive mood in the country, the New Year’s celebration is once again overshadowed by the pandemic. While the coronavirus situation in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai has already largely returned to normal following December’s surge in infections, the test of resilience in the provinces is yet to come.

Local health care is only very rudimentary and modern hospitals are often several hours’ drive away. Rural areas are also home to primarily older population groups who have thus far received inadequate vaccine protection: According to state media, 25% of people over 60 are still unvaccinated.

London-based research institute Airfinity predicts the current wave of coronavirus could peak in the coming week, with up to 36,000 deaths a day. Those predictions are in stark contrast to official figures reported by state media, which say only about 60,000 people have died from Covid-19 during the recent surge in cases.

On Friday, Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said the number of patients with severe Covid-19 infections in emergency departments was steadily decreasing. The 72-year-old stressed the need to strengthen medical staff at the community level and ensure the supply of medicines in rural areas.

A National Health Commission official also said this week that the number of critically ill hospital patients would now be well below the January 5 peak.

International experts remain sceptical, as the figures are difficult to verify.

Meanwhile, Chinese authorities recently launched a month-long censorship campaign to combat “dark emotions” and “rumors” about the COVID-19 situation on social media.

origin 1People pray at the Chinese temple during the Lunar New Year festival in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire/dpa
origin 1Women pose for a photo next to a rabbit-themed light sculpture during the Lunar New Year celebration in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire/dpa