Three weeks remain before the Winter Olympics, but tickets are still not available. Airlines are changing their schedules, creating confusion for travelers. Now, a spate of coronavirus outbreaks around China — including some locally transmitted cases of the fast-spreading Omicron variant — is adding to the uncertainty ahead of the Games in Beijing.
More than 20 million people were still confined to their homes in five cities across China as of Wednesday. Especially worrying for officials has been a recent flare-up in Tianjin, a port city just 70 miles from Beijing that Chinese state media have previously likened to a “moat” protecting the country’s capital.
Officials have not yet determined the source of the Tianjin epidemic that infected 137 people, two of them with the Omicron variant. One local health official said that the virus appeared to have been spreading in the community “for some time.” On Wednesday, officials in Tianjin ordered a second round of mass testing of all 14 million residents.
The surge in infections even before the arrival of thousands of athletes, journalists and officials underscores the challenge Chinese organizers face in trying to hold the Games while sticking to Beijing’s “zero Covid” standards. The country is one of the few left in the world that chases the elimination of the virus, despite the harsh measures needed and the cost imposed on the economy and people’s lives.
Even before Omicron emerged, Beijing’s Games were never going to be a typical affair. The health protocols laid out by Omicron organizers in the fall made it clear that the Games which will be held on February 4th, would be the most restrictive large-scale sporting event since before the pandemic.
People who have not been vaccinated will be required to spend the first 21 days of their stay in Beijing in isolation. Fully vaccinated participants will be required to remain in a tightly managed “closed-loop” bubble from the moment they arrive in Beijing to the time they leave. They will also need to submit two negative tests prior to arrival, take daily tests and submit health reports using a mobile application.
Despite the recent outbreaks, the organizers appear determined to deliver the “green, safe and simple” Games that China’s authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping, called for last week. Officials stated that Beijing has not been locked down by authorities, nor have they made any plans to alter the Olympics schedule or the virus-control measures in the wake of Omicron.
“Whatever difficulties and challenges we may encounter, our determination to host a successful Games as planned remains firm and unwavering,” Zhao Weidong, the organizing committee spokesman, said on Tuesday.
However, there are some fundamental questions that remain, including whether fans should be allowed to attend. Officials have said only residents of mainland China would be allowed as spectators, and that they should only clap — not cheer.
Over 400 infections were detected in the bubble at the Tokyo Games. China is working hard to minimize the risk of an outbreak. Anyone in the bubble who tests positive must stay in a high-security government hospital or quarantine facility until two lab tests — also known as P.C.R. tests — at least 24 hours apart find no more trace of the virus, which can take weeks.
Officials also acknowledged residents’ concerns that infection could spread from the bubble to outside. Beijing traffic officials urged residents to avoid collisions involving vehicles in the closed-loop bubble on Sunday. They said that an ambulance team would respond to such cases.
The Chinese government has a lot at stake. Beijing’s zero-tolerance approach relies on mass testing, stringent border controls, expansive surveillance, contact tracing, extensive quarantines and lockdowns to tame sporadic outbreaks.
That strategy has drawn criticism at times, as in the city of Xi’an last month, when residents complained of food shortages and being denied urgent medical care. It still has widespread support. Beijing has used its success as a way to demonstrate its superiority over Western democracies that have struggled to contain outbreaks.
China has ordered the cancellation of more then two dozen scheduled flights to the United States. This was after several passengers arrived in China and tested positive for the coronavirus. Inbound travelers are also subject to more stringent restrictions than before. Travelers from the United States will, for example, be required to submit at most two negative tests and to monitor their health for seven consecutive days before flying to China.
Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University, said that for Beijing, the Olympics were an opportunity not only to showcase China’s athletic achievements but also to validate its “zero Covid” approach to the virus.
“If they can pull this off without causing any major outbreaks, it would be another gold medal that China would be happy to claim,” Mr. Huang said.
It might be difficult to return to zero local transmissions before and after the Olympics. On Monday, Anyang, a city of five million in China’s central Henan Province, was locked down after recording 58 cases. Two Omicron cases were traced back at least to a student who had traveled from Tianjin December 28. This suggests that the variant had been in circulation in the two cities almost two weeks ago.
The source of some recent outbreaks is still unknown. Officials in Shenzhen have blamed contaminated packaging for the recent spread. This prompted city authorities to warn residents on Monday not to buy products from high-risk areas. (Studies have shown that the transmission of the virus via packaging is very rare.
Recognizing the challenge, some Chinese health experts have recently backed away from emphasizing the “zero Covid” goal.
“Right now we don’t yet have the ability to ensure that there are zero local cases,” said Liang Wannian, a senior official of China’s National Health Commission, according to state media reports. “But we do have the ability and the confidence to quickly extinguish local cases when we find them.”
Even with China’s formidable contact-tracing capacity and high vaccination rates, Omicron could prove especially elusive, given the short window in which positive cases can be detected. Studies have also shown that the Omicron vaccines made by Sinovac or Sinopharm are less effective than the other major Chinese vaccines. (Chinese authorities have approved only Chinese vaccines.
Beijing’s government has urged citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to Beijing, as the Olympics are near. The city’s health authorities are also asking residents to report themselves to the authorities if they have been to any areas recently affected by outbreaks. Beijing was also mentioned this week as one of many Chinese cities where officials recommended that residents stay put during the Lunar New Year holiday. This is typically the busiest time of the year for travel.
“Zero Covid is becoming more and more difficult for the Chinese authorities to achieve, but it’s still achievable,” said Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. “It just comes with a high price — to people’s everyday life and to the economy.”
Technology could help games organizers reduce human interaction. They have tested robots that brew coffee, make deliveries and clean surfaces — R2-D2 look-alikes that spray disinfectant.
There is even Xiaobai, or “Little White,” a waist-high robot that can detect when someone is not wearing a mask and nag the rule-flouter into compliance. Little White, which is equipped with six wheels and a disinfectant dispenser was announced on the official Beijing Winter Olympics website.
“Little White,” Mr. Li said, “is not afraid of the cold.”
Research by Amy Chang Chien and Li You
Source: NY Times