China is one of the few places still adhering to a strict zero-Covid approach, whereby snap lockdowns, mass testing, contact tracing and tight border restrictions are deployed in a bid to stamp out all traces of the disease.
New variants and increasingly frequent outbreaks have raised questions about how sustainable this strategy is. But with thousands of athletes and support staff flying in from around the world — many from countries still seeing high cases after deciding to “live with Covid” — Beijing is taking no chances.
But other measures have taken a heavier toll. More than 160 athletes or team officials have tested positive for Covid and been placed into isolation, with several forced to miss their competitions — a devastating blow for those who have spent years training for this moment. They aren’t allowed to return to the bubble until all symptoms disappear and they return two consecutive negative test results.
“My heart and my mind can’t take this anymore,” tweeted Polish short track speed skater Natalia Maliszewska, who was placed into isolation and missed her first competitive event.
And state media has stepped up its defense, with a number of recent articles citing athletes praising the bubble’s “delicious food, warm-hearted volunteers, strict anti-epidemic measures, (and) perfect snow venues.” The Olympians “received attention and felt satisfied in the closed loop,” said the state-run tabloid Global Times on Tuesday.
The toll of zero-Covid
China’s zero-Covid approach has kept case numbers and hospitalizations low for much of the pandemic following its original outbreak in early 2020.
Then Delta and Omicron hit last year, plunging China into a series of back-to-back outbreaks that haven’t stopped since. Each time an outbreak was contained, another would emerge only weeks later. Both variants are more transmissible than previous strands, meaning the virus spread farther faster and took longer to bring under control — each time requiring massive amounts of resources, manpower and bureaucracy.
Pressure to stop these outbreaks ramped up as China prepared for Lunar New Year and the Games — a major moment of national pride, given Beijing is the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. It’s also the first time in two years China’s has relaxed its border controls, welcoming an influx of foreign visitors.
Targeted lockdowns and restrictions were also seen in the cities of Beijing, Anyang, Tianjin and Shenzhen after they reported Covid cases, many of them Omicron. On Monday, the southwestern city of Baise joined the list, with 3.5 million residents banned from leaving their homes after it reported 56 cases within 24 hours.
During these lockdowns, tens of millions of people — like those in the Olympic bubble — faced prolonged isolation and disruption to their daily lives. Fear of food shortages often prompted panic buying. A local outbreak can mean multiple rounds of mass testing for all residents. People mourned not being able to travel during Lunar New Year, an important time for families to gather, similar to Thanksgiving or Christmas.
And as athletes have pointed out, these restrictions can also take a much heavier toll on people’s well-being and mental health.
Many Xi’an residents, including vulnerable groups like the elderly, flooded social media saying they hadn’t received enough food, basic supplies, even medical care — a sign of official dysfunction as the city struggled to accommodate its own restrictions. Anger ignited online after one heavily pregnant woman was allegedly turned away from the hospital because she didn’t have a valid Covid-19 test, only to reportedly suffer a miscarriage hours later.
However, the general zero-Covid attitude remains largely popular among the Chinese public, in part due to the fact only a tiny fraction of China’s massive population are affected at any one time — and this is widely considered a necessary sacrifice for the country’s safety.
The Chinese government has touted as a political win its ability to keep Covid-19 largely under control throughout much of the pandemic, even as the virus raged overseas.
“We previously thought Covid-19 could be basically contained through vaccines, but now it seems that there’s no simple method to control it except with comprehensive measures,” Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told Global Times on Sunday.
With no way to prevent imported variants from triggering outbreaks, China has no plans to adjust its Covid strategy for now, he added.
In less than two weeks, the last foreign athletes in the Olympic bubble will pack up their bags and fly home, leaving behind the daily reality of zero-Covid — while those in Beijing and around the nation hunker down for the long haul, waiting for an end that’s nowhere in sight.