Xīnnián kuàilè! (新年快乐!). Happy New Year. The Rat has gone and all of us around not just the-Chinese speaking world but across the entire planet will be saying good riddance, sometimes in pretty strong terms. The pest control might have taken 12 months to arrive but we’ll welcome it all the same.
The Year of the Ox is with us and with it and the Spring Festival will come, one hopes, rebirth, better fortune and a gradual end to the pestilence that in time-honoured fashion the rodent brought.
This year’s Chinese New Year festival is the first one I’ve spent actually in China and I have to say I’m delighted to be here in Hong Kong far from the barren bleakness of Boris’s Britain.
So what will the Year of the Ox bring? Well, let’s start with a reminder that this is not just any old ox. While the Chinese zodiac is represented by 12 different animals, there are nuances to each.
Today marks the beginning of the xin chou year, according to what is known as the sexagenary cycle. Without getting too complicated about it, Xin represents the heavenly stem for the element metal (2020 was also a metal year), while chou is the earthly branch symbol for ox. Each element has a Yin and a Yang year. The result? We’ve entered the Year of the Yin Metal Ox.
What will the year spell for our industry? Well, outside the few hot spots such as Hainan and Jeju, we can already say it’s got off to a difficult start. I almost dread my morning read of western media such as CNN and BBC knowing that they will likely bring grim tidings about the pandemic. Sure enough, today’s headlines are no different. Covid: EU’s von der Leyen admits vaccine rollout failures proclaims the BBC in a story that quotes European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen acknowledging – incredibly, when you think about it – that the EU had been “overconfident” about vaccine production targets being met.
And from CNN comes this. The UK variant could “impact the epidemic curve” and lead to more restrictions in Europe if it becomes the dominant strain, a World Health Organization official warns.
Groan. But if you can stand to keep reading there is plenty of cause for hope. The majority of Americans could be vaccinated by mid- or end-summer, says Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Vaccines should work against coronavirus variants, NIH lab chief tells Biden. Great progress continues in the vaccination roll-out in countries as diverse as Serbia, Chile, Israel, the UAE and UK.
And read this from China’s leading state media Global Times, which has produced admirable coverage of the pandemic right from the early days. In a sign of authorities bringing the latest winter epidemic outbreak under control, China has seen first-tier cities – Beijing and Shanghai – as well as most COVID-19 affected regions report zero new local cases over the past few days. The latest development comes as a remarkable victory after more than 2,000 local cases were reported in January in the latest wave of new infections.
In the meantime, China has started inoculating some key groups with COVID-19 vaccines across the country, which is expected to offer enchanted protection for high-risk groups. As of February 3, China had administered over 31.23 million shots of COVID-19 vaccines, a spokesperson of the National Health Commission said at a recent press conference.
Both the low and high numbers featured in that report are in their way remarkable. And frankly our industry needs those numbers. For many brands, and some retailers fortunate enough to have a presence there, Hainan is a lifeline, a buoyant counterpoint to the calamity that still dominates so much of our sector. The news from here in Hong Kong, too, is encouraging. The daily caseload has been steadily falling over the past two weeks, with just 21 new infections confirmed on Thursday, the South China Morning Post reported this morning.
In Singapore, just three community cases were reported yesterday. Could we be nearing reinflation time for the Air Travel Bubble with Hong Kong that was so frustratingly punctured at the last minute late last year?
Alas the recent sombre news on the COVID-19 variants and mutations means most governments are being even more protective about their borders and in the almost total absence of inter-governmental cooperation and common sense on travel protocols, the prevailing travel retail industry consensus is that – outside those hot spots mentioned – we are in for a long and cold first half year at least. As recently as yesterday, two of the most senior figures in our channel, one an airport company and one a brand, told me that they had been forced into further lay-offs.
But like those oxen working the fields, we have to keep putting one foot in front of another, no matter the burden, no matter how wearisome the task. Hong Kong-based feng shui master Thierry Chow tells CNN: “The ox, in Chinese culture, is a hardworking zodiac sign. It usually signifies movements so, hopefully, the world will be less static than last year and get moving again in the second half of the year.”
I shall take solace from Mr Chow’s words. The hardworking bit is a given – we are ‘the website that never sleeps’, after all, and anyway we have no other option. As for the movement, I’ll take the steady progress of the ox over the scuttling of the rat any day.