Omicron has broken through Beijing’s covid-free fortifications

No covid allowed.
No covid allowed.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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Beijing identified its first locally-transmitted case of the omicron variant on Saturday (Jan. 15), prompting swift action from a city that has spent months fortifying itself against a raging pandemic as it invites an infected world into its borders for the Winter Olympics, set to begin on Feb. 4.

Within a day, Chinese authorities had swept into—and sealed off—the infected person’s workplace and residential compound, tested more than 2,400 people the person may have come into contact with. State media also published a detailed account of the person’s movements going back to Dec. 31, which included a visit to a ski park.

The government is aiming for a “green, safe, and simple” Olympics in Beijing, as Xi Jinping put it during a recent visit to games venues, though attempts to limit the spread of covid have required complex controls of the city and citizenry even more stringent than those in place for the summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

Since Jan. 4, Beijing has raised a “closed loop” around the stadiums, venues, and hotels that will be used during the Olympics, creating a bubble the government hopes will be impenetrable by imposing strict controls on the movement of people in and out of the Olympic facilities. Some 20,000 Chinese workers and volunteers are locked in, unable to go home until the games end on Feb. 20. When athletes arrive, their support teams, as well as journalists and others attending the Olympics from abroad, will not be allowed outside the bubble. Those who will also be at the Paralympics that follow in March, such as judges and referees, will not be able to emerge from the Olympics bubble until April.

Already limited international flights to the country have been drastically reduced since December, and commercial flights from the US to China are now hard to find. Athletes are largely arriving on chartered flights.

Everyone inside the bubble will be required to take a daily PCR test. Any unvaccinated international arrivals, including athletes, will need to quarantine for three weeks before being allowed to participate in the games. Spectators are limited to people already in mainland China—which will make a diplomatic boycott a lot less noticeable—and subject to fine-grained restrictions; for example, fans have been instructed to show their enthusiasm by clapping only, not shouting or cheering.

Despite the plans to prevent covid infections from sneaking inside the Olympic bubble, there are signs that some of the controls outside it may be faltering. Tianjin, a port city of 14 million half an hour by high-speed train from Beijing, has seen clusters of covid infections, at least two of omicron. The clusters have resulted in lockdowns, mass testing, and restrictions on movement. Residents need permission to leave the city, and last weekend the high-speed train to Beijing stopped selling tickets.

Additionally, Sinovac and Sinopharm, the China-made vaccines most of the country is inoculated with, have been found to be less effective against infection from omicron.