Tao Ming / Xinhua via AP File Photo
TAIPEI, Taiwan – Just weeks ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics, China is battling multiple coronavirus outbreaks in half a dozen cities, with the closest to the capital being powered by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
With the success of the Games and China’s national dignity at stake, Beijing is doubling its “zero tolerance” COVID-19 policy.
Across China, more than 20 million people are locked in some form, with many being prevented from leaving their homes.
Tianjin, just an hour or so from Beijing, is on high alert despite its refrain from a full lockdown like the one in 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 trains and closed motorways. Individuals leaving the city are required to present negative COVID-19 tests and obtain special permission.
The city ran mass tests for its 14 million residents for the second time on Wednesday, asking them to stay in their homes until they get a negative result.
The proximity of Tianjin to Beijing makes timing particularly difficult. During the Tokyo Olympics in July, Japan experienced a widespread outbreak fueled by the Delta variant.
Even so, the disruption for the people of Tianjin remains relatively minor.
“Everything is fine, you can all go to the supermarkets and restaurants as normal,” says Yu Xuan, who works at a university in Tianjin.
Another resident, Wang Dacheng, said that his father, who had difficulty walking, was able to get tested in his home.
“The people in Tianjin are quite optimistic, everyone was very calm and collected,” said Wang.
Elsewhere, in Xi’an to the west and in several cities in Henan Province, the measures are far more severe, leading to complaints that people confiscated from their homes are running out of food.
China has followed uncompromising policies almost since the pandemic began, starting with the unprecedented move to foreclose 11 million people in downtown Wuhan, where the virus was first discovered, as well as other parts of Hubei province in January 2020.
It was able to deal with local outbreaks through lockdowns, tight border controls and contact tracing backed by increased digital surveillance. The measures so far have prevented the virus from spreading into a full-fledged national outbreak. The vaccination rate is now over 85%.
With the Olympics starting on February 4th and assistants already arriving, the task has become even more important. Whether Beijing’s protective measures will withstand the Omicron variant is a crucial question.
“I think this is really a critical moment for China. Can it hold Omicron off?” said Dali Yang, professor of Chinese politics at the University of Chicago.
China reported 124 domestically transmitted cases on Thursday, including 76 in Henan province and 41 in Tianjin. Authorities have reported a total of 104,379 cases, of which 3,460 are currently active, and 4,636 deaths, a number that has not changed in months.
Beijing’s Olympic bubble is even stricter than Tokyo, which despite some leaks was most effective at preventing transmission, said Kenji Shibuya, research director of the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research and an expert on public health.
Beijing is at potentially greater risk as the more contagious Omicron variant has been shown to be adept at bypassing vaccines.
In addition, the lack of widespread outbreaks means that the Chinese population is only protected by vaccines and not from antibodies produced by previous infections, said Dr. Vineeta Bal, a leading Indian immunologist.
“The Olympics would be the first test,” said Bal. Omicron “can travel in China easily.”
Unlike the Olympic bubble in Tokyo, there will be no contact between the inside and the outside world.
Officials, athletes, employees and journalists will travel between hotels and competition venues in a so-called closed-loop system in specially designed vehicles. Chinese people must be quarantined for three weeks after exiting the bladder.
Even the inside garbage is treated separately, and Beijing traffic police say anyone involved in a collision with a designated Winter Olympics vehicle should be careful not to come into contact with those on board and be sure to use a special one Team to take care of the matter.
If strictly enforced, such measures should be able to prevent the virus from spreading within the bladder, said Kei Saito, a virologist at the University of Tokyo. But it could be a different story outside.
“Omicron is three to four times as transmissible as Delta … I think it’s nearly impossible to control the spread of Omicron,” Saito said.
However, despite the ongoing global pandemic and controversy, including a US-led diplomatic boycott, organizers are determined to keep the Games going.
“The world is turning its eyes to China and China is ready,” said Chinese President and leader of the ruling Communist Party, Xi Jinping, during an inspection tour of the competition sites last week.
Associated Press Researcher Chen Si in Shanghai and AP Science Writer Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi contributed to this report.