The Rat Year Starts, Mob and Coronavirus

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According to the lunar calendar, at 25th January the year of the Rat will start. According to one myth, the Jade Emperor decided that the order of zodiacal animals would be fixed by the order in which they arrived to his party. Being smart, the rat tricked the ox into giving him a ride and when they were at the finish line, the rat jumped down and landed ahead of ox, becoming first. This is why, the rat represents cleverness and success. Chinese people are already getting ready in order to celebrate this event properly.  Most of people’s WeChat Moments (the Chinese messaging app) is filled with QR codes  inviting family and friends to help each other to vie for tickets to go back home.

But let’s procede with order. In China this holiday is called Spring Festival (chūnjié 春节) or Guo Nian (guònian过年). The first name refers to the rural dimension: peasants used to welcome spring and pray Gods for prosperity, good planting and harvest. The second one refers to the myth of the monster Nian (年). It is unknown when excatly this story was created but almost all versions agree in describing the monster as a ferocious and carnivorous beast with a long head and sharp horns.  It lived deep in the sea all year showing up only on Chinese New Year’s Eve to search for people to eat. Therefore, on that day, people would go away to remote mountains in order to avoid being harmed or even eaten by the monster. Fear and terror were floating around until an old man refused to hide in the mountains. Instead, he successfully scared away the monster: he pasted red papers on doors (today’s Spring Couplets)[1]; burned bamboo to make a loud cracking sound (today’s firecrackers); lighted candles in the houses; and wore red clothes. After the New Year’s Eve people came back,  they were surprised to discover everything was still there, nothing was destroyed. The old man instructed all people how to scare the monster away and, in fact he never showed up again.  

Besides traditions and rituals, family reunion is what matters the most.  People who live in the cities go back home on vacation, and since the most elderly parents live in rural villages, the Spring Festival has become a period of huge migration. Figures confirm the madness : 3 billion trips 3.2 % more compared to last year , according to the ministry. These numbers could be explain through the fact that this year Spring Festival coincides with college students’ vacation. Nothing to be worried about! China is preparing ahead: on January 10th the State Council Information Office organized a press conference with other seven state departments announcing this year’s special measures in order to address the Spring Festival rush

Just to name a few,  e-ticket check-in system has been installed in more than 1000 train stations speeding up ticketing procedures. About 790,000 buses and 19,000 boats will be offered during the period, according to the chief engineer of the Ministry of Transport Wang Yang.

But not everythins is going as wished. In China a new virus has affected almost 41 victims. It is called coronavirus and it casues, besides minor symptoms, severe acute respiratory syndrome. One of the Wuhan markets has been identified as the centre of the outbreak and therefore closed. Even if nobody has doubts on the efficiency of the Chinese machine, could this new virus ruin it all?

In fact, Chinese Spring Festival is officially celebrated also in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philipines, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam.  Therefore, people are worried about a higher risk of transmission.  Even though the new coronavirus seems not to spread from one person to another, some experts have cautioned it may be too soon to know whether there is human-to-human transmission. This is way additional precautions have been taken such as temperature screening  and disinfectants will be mandatory at every and each  train station and other heavily trafficked location.

Since the information the PRC has given also WTO does not recommend any specific health measures for travelers, and advises against any travel or trade restrictions on China. The hope is that China is not belittling the impact of the epidemy, otherwise it would be clear that history teaches us nothing:  the 2003 SARS epidemic spreaded from mainland China to almost 30 nations, affecting 8,000 people, killing 774, and sowing panic around the world.

[1]       Spring couplets can be dated back to 1,000 years ago when people hung taofu (桃符, written charms on peach wood) on doors. It was believed that to hang a piece of peach wood with an inscription of Shentu and Yulei ( name of the two guards of the entrance to the ghost world) on doors could scare evil things away. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279), people changed practice: they used to write two auspicious antithetical lines on the door. Later on also the peach wood has been replaced by red paper.