Families rejoice after years of separation as China ends entry quarantine

Hong Kong (CNN) — Citizens have been ecstatic about China’s partial reopening — including the hundreds of millions of people who have been isolated at home for the past three years and those separated from loved ones abroad.

China will lift quarantine requirements for all international arrivals starting Jan. 8, authorities announced Monday, in its most significant move yet to move away from a strict zero-Covid policy.

Borders remain largely closed to foreigners, except for a limited number of business or family visits – although the government said on Monday that could also be eased.

For the many Chinese citizens abroad who have been unable to return or are unwilling to endure prolonged quarantines, the news means they can finally return home — a bittersweet victory.

“Finally, everyone can (live) a normal life,” said a Chinese citizen living in New York who hasn’t been home for four years. She called the separation “extremely painful” and several members of her family died during that time, along with a beloved dog she grew up with.

Her family “missed (my graduation). They missed a lot of things,” she said. “And I miss a lot of things about my family too. All my friends, they got married during the pandemic. Even some of them had kids. I feel like I’m missing out on everything, I’m missing out on the most important things in their lives time.”

May Ma, 28, has lived in South Korea for almost three years and has been unable to return home. She said the worst thing about the quarantine requirement was worrying about her grandparents’ health and not knowing if she would be able to return in time to say goodbye if anything happened.

Throughout the pandemic, “the scariest thing is … not knowing where the end is and when you can go back,” she said. “I definitely feel happy that I can finally see the ending.”

People inside China are also celebrating and looking forward to traveling abroad. Most people haven’t left the country for several years and are now flocking to booking sites to plan long-awaited vacations.

On Chinese travel booking site Trip.com, online searches for outbound flights and overseas hotels jumped to a three-year high, according to company data. Within half an hour of the announcement, searches for popular destinations increased tenfold, with many searching for outbound tour packages during the Lunar New Year holiday in late January, data showed.

Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the US and the UK are among the top 10 destinations with the fastest-growing searches since the site was launched.

But the loosening of borders has raised concerns among some as China battles the worst wave of Covid infections since the pandemic began.

While no new Covid deaths have been reported, China’s morgues and crematoria are overwhelmed as Covid rages across the country. CNN’s Selina Wang is reporting this story from Beijing.

Cases have soared since China gave up on zero Covid, empty streets and crowded hospital wards. When CNN visited a crematorium in Beijing last week, cars lined up to enter, packed with grieving families who had waited more than a day to cremate their loved ones who died of the coronavirus.
On Friday, Bloomberg News and the Financial Times reported that data released at an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission showed that China may have had coronavirus cases in the first 20 days of December, according to two media reports. Nearly 250 million people have been infected with the new coronavirus. They cited sources familiar with the matter or involved in the discussions.

If correct, that estimate — which CNN could not independently confirm — would account for roughly 18% of China’s 1.4 billion population and represent the world’s largest Covid-19 outbreak to date.

“I think right now, it’s a complete mess,” said the Chinese national in New York. “Everyone is sick. So, at least I don’t think now is the best time to visit family. Maybe in two or three months.”

Some overseas destinations are also wary. Officials in northern Italy’s Lombardy region have asked Milan’s Malpensa airport – one of the country’s largest international airports – to conduct PCR tests on all arrivals from China between now and the end of January.

India, which shares a border with China, has required travelers from China and several other countries to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival. Japan announced on Friday that travelers from mainland China or who have been there within a week will be tested for the new coronavirus upon entry. In India and Japan, people found to be positive upon arrival will be required to quarantine.

But for many Chinese eager to travel and reunite, the overwhelming emotion remains a relief.

“It doesn’t matter if you can make it back before Chinese New Year,” Ma said in South Korea, referring to the Lunar New Year. “After all, there is still hope, and I have the heart to wait a little longer.”

Above: Passengers in the departure hall of Beijing International Airport on December 27. Photo Credit: Kydpl Kyodo/AP

CNN Beijing’s Emiko Jozuko, Kunal Sehgal, Irene Nasser and Jake Kwon contributed to this report.

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