The Beijing Winter Olympic Games are set to begin next month on February 4th. About 27,000 Olympic-related personnel are expected to enter the country in the coming weeks.
Chinese authorities have been preparing an enclosed campus or so-called “Olympic Bubble” to prevent contagious COVID-19 variants from spreading into Beijing. But this plan has been complicated as cases of the Delta and Omicron variants were recently identified in the country, raising concerns about how Beijing can contain the outbreak ahead of the Games.
Last week, Tianjin, a city 100-kilometers from Beijing, found two local Omicron cases. A massive testing campaign was launched and 18 more cases were found on January 9, with 10 symptomatic and 11 asymptomatic cases were identified on 10 January.
According to Tianjin’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the city is experiencing third-generation spread, which means undetected cases have been circulating for 14–21 days and the authorities have yet to identify the origin of the infection.
Attempts to contain the virus
As the Winter Olympics are approaching, the port city is on red alert. To contain the spread, the city’s 14 million population is lining up for COVID-19 nucleic acid tests.
To prevent the spread of Omicron to other cities, residents in Tianjin are forbidden from leaving their residential district, according to a number of testimonies from Weibo.
However, some expect the contagious Omicron variant may have already travelled to Beijing as the hidden transmission in Tianjin has found its way to Anyang city in Henan province.
Anticipating this, Beijing authorities are on high alert:
“All tutoring centers, daycare centers and vocational training centers were closed down, while universities and colleges sealed off their campuses.”
— Chris Fenton (@TheDragonFeeder) January 10, 2022
Thus far, China’s zero-COVID strategy has been successful in containing the spread of COVID-19 within the country. Wuhan, the origin of the COVID-19 outbreak, virtually eradicated the virus within four months despite criticisms about its authoritative lockdown measures including roadblocks, suspension of public transportation services, massive home quarantine, severe punishment, a health and contact tracking system that restricts individual mobility, and more.
And more recently, a three-week lockdown since December 23 in Xi’an, a city in Shaanxi province, has more or less halted the spread of the Delta variant. The new local transmissions in Xi'an were down from 155 on December 29 to 13 cases on January 10.
Citizens’ frustrations with COVID protocols
Yet, the social and political cost of authoritative control measures is huge. During the lockdown in Xi’an, frustration about the restriction on freedom emerged on social media with witness accounts of food shortages and inadequate care for vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and elderly people with heart conditions.
Meanwhile, the authorities placated community frustration with apologies:
A Xi'an city government statement said the incident had “caused widespread concern in society and caused a severe social impact.”https://t.co/6Td1yJIb8m
— Globalnews.ca (@globalnews) January 6, 2022
And also with suppression:
Police in the northern Chinese city of Xi'an have arrested dozens of people for spreading “rumors” online after authorities banned the city's 13 million residents from posting negative reports over the new COVID-19 lockdown.https://t.co/hP5OHN6wN7
— Radio Free Asia (@RadioFreeAsia) January 8, 2022
Now that Omicron has reached China, the country's control model as crystalized in its zero-COVID strategy will face a serious test, as pointed by Shirley Ze Yu, a professor on political economy:
#Omicron is spotted in Tianjin. This will be a most serious test to China’s zero-Covid policy, because the social cost will surely be more massive than before, due to the nature of the strain. Less than 30 days before the Winter Olympics, can China make Omicron disappear? pic.twitter.com/zEYDYC1uuJ
— Shirley Ze Yu (@shirleyzeyu) January 10, 2022
For more information about this topic, see our special coverage When sports are political: The other side of Beijing 2022