Just a few weeks before hosting the Beijing Winter Olympics, China battling multiple coronavirus outbreaks in half a dozen cities, the closest to the capital being driven by the highly transmissible variant of omicron.
With the success of the Games and China’s national dignity at stake, Beijing is doubling down on its COVID-19 “zero tolerance” policy.
Across China, more than 20 million people are in some form of lockdown, and many are prevented from leaving their homes.
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Tianjin, just about an hour from Beijing, is on high alert, although it has refrained from imposing a full lockdown, like that of Xi’an, a city of 14 million people.
Instead, it has cordoned off several residential communities and universities, canceled almost all flights, suspended high-speed train service, and closed highways. People leaving the city are required to show negative COVID-19 tests and receive special permission.
On Wednesday, the city carried out mass tests for its 14 million residents and asked them to stay in their homes until they tested negative.
The proximity of Tianjin to Beijing makes the timing particularly busy. During the Tokyo Olympics in July, Japan experienced a generalized epidemic caused by the delta variant.
Despite this, the disruption for the residents of Tianjin remains relatively mild.
“Everything is fine, supermarkets and restaurants, you can go there normally,” said Yu Xuan, who works at a university in Tianjin.
Wang Dacheng, another resident, said his father who had difficulty walking was able to get tested in their apartment.
“The people of Tianjin are quite optimistic, everyone has been very calm and serene,” Wang said.
Elsewhere, in Xi’an to the west and several cities in Henan Province, the measures are much harsher, leading to complaints that people held in their apartments were running out of food.
China has followed uncompromising policies almost from the start of the pandemic, starting with the unprecedented stage of isolating 11 million people in the central city of Wuhan where the virus was first detected, as well. than in other parts of Hubei Province in January 2020.
It has been able to cope with local epidemics through closures, strict border controls and contact tracing through increased digital surveillance. The measures have so far prevented the virus from spreading into a full-fledged national epidemic. The vaccination rate now exceeds 85%.
With the Olympics set to start on February 4 and support staff already arriving, the task has become even more critical. The question of whether Beijing’s guarantees will hold up against the omicron variant is crucial.
“I think this is really a critical time for China. Can it push omicron away?” said Dali Yang, professor of Chinese politics at the University of Chicago.
China reported 124 locally transmitted cases on Thursday, including 76 in Henan province and 41 in Tianjin. Authorities have reported a total of 104,379 cases, including 3,460 currently active and 4,636 deaths, a figure that has not changed for months.
Beijing’s Olympic bubble is even tighter than Tokyo’s, which has been mostly effective in stopping transmission despite some leaks, said Kenji Shibuya, research director at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research and public health expert.
Beijing faces a potentially greater risk as the most contagious omicron variant has been shown to be able to evade vaccines.
In addition, the absence of generalized epidemics means the Chinese population is protected only by vaccines and not by antibodies produced by previous infections, said Dr Vineeta Bal, a leading Indian immunologist.
“The Olympics would be the first try,” Bal said. Omicron “can easily travel to China”.
Unlike the Tokyo Olympics bubble, there will be no contact between those inside and the outside world.
Officials, athletes, staff and journalists will travel between hotels and competition venues on specially designated vehicles in what is described as a closed loop system. The Chinese will have to quarantine themselves for three weeks when they exit the bubble.
Even indoor garbage will be handled separately, and Beijing traffic police said anyone involved in a collision with a designated Winter Olympics vehicle should be careful not to come into contact with bystanders. board and wait for a special team to deal with the matter.
If strictly enforced, such measures should be able to prevent the spread of the virus within the bubble, said Kei Saito, a virologist at the University of Tokyo. But on the outside, that could be a different story.
“Omicron is three to four times more transmissible than delta… I think it’s almost impossible to control the spread of omicron,” Saito said.
Yet despite the relentless global pandemic and controversies, including a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott, organizers are determined to keep the Games going.
“The world is looking to China and China is ready,” Chinese President and ruling Communist Party leader Xi Jinping said during an inspection visit to competition venues last week.
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