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Omicron Deepens Uncertainty Surrounding Beijing Olympics

The Winter Olympics are three weeks away, however tickets have but to go on sale. Airways are shifting schedules, creating journey confusion. Now, a spate of coronavirus outbreaks round China — together with some regionally transmitted instances of the fast-spreading Omicron variant — is including to the uncertainty forward of the Video games in Beijing.

As of Wednesday, greater than 20 million individuals remained confined to their houses in at the least 5 cities round China. Particularly worrying for officers has been a latest flare-up in Tianjin, a port metropolis simply 70 miles from Beijing that Chinese language state media have beforehand likened to a “moat” defending the nation’s capital.

Officers have but to find out the supply of the Tianjin outbreak that contaminated 137 individuals, together with at the least two with the Omicron variant. One native well being official mentioned that the virus appeared to have been spreading locally “for a while.” On Wednesday, officers in Tianjin ordered a second spherical of mass testing of all 14 million residents.

The surge in infections even earlier than the arrival of hundreds of athletes, journalists and officers underscores the problem Chinese language organizers face in attempting to carry the Video games whereas sticking to Beijing’s “zero Covid” standards. The nation is among the few left on the planet that chases the elimination of the virus, regardless of the harsh measures wanted and the fee imposed on the economic system and folks’s lives.

Even earlier than Omicron emerged, Beijing’s Video games have been by no means going to be a typical affair. The well being protocols organizers specified by the autumn had already made it clear that the Video games, that are scheduled to start on Feb. 4, could be probably the most extraordinarily restricted large-scale sporting event for the reason that begin of the pandemic.

People who find themselves unvaccinated must spend their first 21 days in Beijing in solitary quarantine. Absolutely vaccinated contributors will likely be required to stay in a tightly managed “closed-loop” bubble from the second they arrive in Beijing to the time they go away. In addition they should current two destructive assessments earlier than arrival, take assessments every day and submit well being reviews to the authorities utilizing a cellular app.

Regardless of the latest outbreaks, the organizers seem decided to ship the “inexperienced, secure and easy” Video games that China’s authoritarian chief, Xi Jinping, referred to as for final week. Officers mentioned the authorities to this point had no plans to lock down Beijing, or to vary both the Olympics schedule or virus-control measures in response to Omicron.

“No matter difficulties and challenges we might encounter, our willpower to host a profitable Video games as deliberate stays agency and unwavering,” Zhao Weidong, the organizing committee spokesman, mentioned on Tuesday.

However some primary questions stay, together with methods to permit followers to attend. Officers have mentioned solely residents of mainland China could be allowed as spectators, and that they need to solely clap — not cheer.

On the Tokyo Video games final summer time, greater than 400 infections have been recorded within the bubble; China goes to nice lengths to restrict the chance of an outbreak. Anybody within the bubble who assessments constructive should keep in a high-security authorities hospital or quarantine facility till two lab assessments — also referred to as P.C.R. assessments — at the least 24 hours aside discover no extra hint of the virus, which may take weeks.

Officers additionally acknowledged considerations amongst residents that infections might happen throughout the bubble after which unfold outdoors. On Sunday, Beijing site visitors authorities urged residents to keep away from any collisions involving autos from the closed-loop bubble, saying {that a} particular unit of ambulances would reply to such accidents.

For the Chinese language authorities, rather a lot is at stake. Beijing’s zero-tolerance strategy depends on mass testing, stringent border controls, expansive surveillance, contact tracing, intensive quarantines and lockdowns to tame sporadic outbreaks.

That technique has drawn criticism at instances, as within the metropolis of Xi’an last month, when residents complained of meals shortages and being denied pressing medical care. But it surely retains widespread public help. And Beijing has used its success to claim the prevalence of its top-down authoritarian system in contrast with Western democracies, which have struggled to include outbreaks.

This month, China ordered the cancellation of greater than two dozen scheduled flights from the US after a number of passengers examined constructive for the coronavirus after arriving in China. The federal government additionally just lately stepped up its already onerous restrictions for inbound vacationers. Beginning on Thursday, vacationers coming from the US, for instance, will likely be required to current at the least two destructive assessments and monitor their well being for seven days of their departure metropolis earlier than flying to China.

Yanzhong Huang, director of the Heart for World Well being Research at Seton Corridor College, mentioned that for Beijing, the Olympics have been a chance not solely to showcase China’s athletic achievements but additionally to validate its “zero Covid” strategy to the virus.

“If they will pull this off with out inflicting any main outbreaks, it will be one other gold medal that China could be comfortable to assert,” Mr. Huang mentioned.

Getting again to zero native transmissions earlier than the Olympics could also be onerous. On Monday, Anyang, a metropolis of 5 million in China’s central Henan Province, was locked down after recording 58 instances. A minimum of two Omicron instances have been traced to a pupil who had traveled from Tianjin on Dec. 28, suggesting that the variant had already been circulating within the two cities for practically two weeks.

And the supply of a number of the latest outbreaks stays unclear. In Shenzhen, officers blamed contaminated packaging of imported merchandise for a latest unfold of the Delta variant, prompting metropolis authorities on Monday to warn residents to not purchase items from high-risk international locations. (Research present that transmission of the virus from packaging is extraordinarily uncommon.)

Recognizing the problem, some Chinese language well being specialists have just lately backed away from emphasizing the “zero Covid” aim.

“Proper now we don’t but have the power to make sure that there are zero native instances,” mentioned Liang Wannian, a senior official of China’s Nationwide Well being Fee, in response to state media reports. “However we do have the power and the boldness to rapidly extinguish native instances after we discover them.”

Even with China’s formidable contact-tracing capability and excessive vaccination charges, Omicron might show particularly elusive, given the brief window through which constructive instances will be detected. Research have additionally instructed that the 2 main Chinese language vaccines, made by Sinovac and Sinopharm, are not as effective in stopping an infection of the Omicron variant. (Chinese language authorities have to this point authorised solely Chinese language vaccines.)

With the Olympics on the horizon, the Beijing authorities has urged individuals to chorus from pointless journey to the capital. The town’s well being authorities are additionally asking residents to report themselves to the authorities if they’ve been to any areas just lately affected by outbreaks. This week, Beijing was additionally one in all a number of Chinese language cities the place officers mentioned residents ought to keep put in the course of the coming Lunar New 12 months vacation, usually the busiest journey week of the yr.

“Zero Covid is changing into increasingly tough for the Chinese language authorities to realize, nevertheless it’s nonetheless achievable,” mentioned Jin Dongyan, a virologist on the College of Hong Kong. “It simply comes with a excessive worth — to individuals’s on a regular basis life and to the economic system.”

Video games organizers are hoping that know-how may assist to attenuate human interplay. They’ve examined robots that brew espresso, make deliveries and clear surfaces — R2-D2 look-alikes that spray disinfectant.

There may be even Xiaobai, or “Little White,” a waist-high robotic that may detect when somebody will not be carrying a masks and nag the rule-flouter into compliance. Geared up with six wheels and a disinfectant dispenser, Little White is able to tackle the problem of the Video games, Li Xinglong, one in all its inventors, instructed in an announcement on the official Beijing Winter Olympics web site.

“Little White,” Mr. Li mentioned, “will not be afraid of the chilly.”

Amy Chang Chien and Li You contributed analysis.

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