Just weeks before hosting the Winter Olympics in Beijing, China faces multiple coronavirus outbreaks in half a dozen cities. The contagious omicron variant was driving the outbreak closer to the capital.
With the success of the Games and Chinese national pride on the table, Beijing redoubled its zero tolerance policy against the virus.
More than 20 million people throughout the country were under some form of confinement, many of them unable to leave their homes.
Tianjin, barely an hour from Beijing, was on alert, though it avoided a full quarantine like that of Xi’an, a city of 14 million people.
Instead, it isolated several residential areas and universities, canceled almost all flights, suspended high-speed train services and closed highways. People leaving the city had to submit a negative COVID-19 test and obtain a special permit.
The city on Wednesday ran a second round of massive tests for its 14 million residents and asked them to stay home until a negative result.
Tianjin’s proximity to Beijing made the outbreak particularly inopportune. During the Tokyo Olympics in July, Japan suffered a widespread outbreak fueled by the delta variant of the virus.
However, restrictions on the population in Tianjin remained relatively lax.
“Everything is fine, supermarkets and restaurants, you can go to everything normally,” said Yu Xuan, who works at a university in Tianjin.
The measures were much more demanding in Xi’an to the west and in several cities in Henan province, prompting complaints that people held in their apartments were running out of food.
China has maintained a firm control policy almost since the beginning of the pandemic, beginning with the unprecedented move to isolate 11 million people from the central city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, along with other parts of the province of Wuhan. Hubei in January 2020.
Beijing has fought local outbreaks with quarantines, strict border controls and contact tracing, with the help of increased digital surveillance. The measures have so far prevented a nationwide outbreak. The vaccination rate exceeds 85%.
The Olympic jousting is set to begin on February 4 and support personnel are already arriving in town, so the task of keeping the virus at bay has become even more crucial. A key question is whether Beijing’s safeguards will hold up against the omicron variant.
China reported 124 local infections on Thursday, including 76 in Henan province and 41 in Tianjin. Authorities have reported a total of 104,379 cases, 3,460 of them active, and 4,636 deaths, a figure that has not changed in months.
The lack of large outbreaks in China means that the population is only protected by vaccines, not by antibodies produced by previous infections, said Dr. Vineeta Bal, a leading Indian immunologist.
“The Olympics would be the first test,” said Bal, noting that omicron “can easily travel to China.”
Unlike the bubble used in the Tokyo Games, in Beijing there will be no contact between the people involved in the competitions and the outside world.
Officials, athletes, employees and journalists will travel between hotels and sports venues in designated vehicles, in what has been described as a closed-loop system. Chinese citizens will have to quarantine for three weeks to leave the bubble.
Even the garbage will be processed separately.
If the measures are strictly enforced, they should prevent the virus from spreading inside the bubble, said Kei Saito, a virologist at the University of Tokyo. But the question changes outside.
“Omicron is three to four times more contagious than delta,” Saito said. “I think it is almost impossible to control the expansion of omicron.”
However, despite the pandemic and controversies such as a diplomatic boycott of the Games led by the United States, the organizers are determined to see the event go ahead.
“The world looks to China, and China is ready”said Chinese President and Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping during an inspection tour of the Olympic venues last week.
(with AP information)