BEIJING — For a country determined to keep out the virus that first emerged within its borders, bringing in more than 15,000 people from all corners of the world was a serious gamble. It seems to be paying off.
One week into the 17-day event, China seems to be meeting its formidable COVID-19 Olympic challenge with a so-called “bubble” that allows Beijing Games participants to skip quarantine but tightly restricts their movement so they don’t come in contact with the general population. There have been 490 confirmed cases — many of them positive tests on symptomless visitors — and no reports of any leaking out to date.
Inside the bubble, Olympic organizers are employing a version of the government’s zero-tolerance approach. Everybody is tested for the virus daily and any person who is positive to it is quickly isolated in order to stop its spread. All athletes must use N95 facial masks, even if they are not competing.
“Arguably the riskiest thing they’ve done so far is to host the Games, and if they can get through that, then they can continue to use this strategy to keep localized outbreaks under control for a long time,” said Karen Grépin, a public health expert at the University of Hong Kong.
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China has strict rules about who is allowed to enter China. Those who are permitted to stay must quarantine for at least two to three days in designated hotels. To isolate and root out the most serious cases, it responds by locking down buildings and areas.
This strategy comes with its costs. China expanded its security measures to include entire areas of 10 million or more people as a way to prevent outbreaks.
An outbreak of 180 cases has forced the closure of a southwestern region of approximately 4 million residents, bordering Vietnam. Due to the handful of cases reported two weeks back, Beijing has two neighborhoods that remain unlocked.
As the Olympics bubble has been officially called, it created two worlds within one closed loop. Athletes and other participants aren’t able to visit Beijing’s tourist sites or restaurants and bars in their downtime. They only get a glimpse of Beijing from buses which transport them between venues and their accommodations.
Temporary walls are constructed around their competition venues and hotels. They also serve as barriers to discourage people from entering or leaving.
Outside, life goes on as normal for most in the nation’s capital. Select groups — school children, corporate sponsors, winter sports groups, foreign diplomats and journalists among others — are being invited to fill the stands partially, but most follow the Games on their smartphones or TV.
“We don’t feel the Winter Olympics are far from our life,” said Yi Jianhua, a retiree from Hunan province visiting his daughter in Beijing. “We can watch it on TV and mobile phone. Even though we can’t attend the event in person, we are still very interested. This is a great show. Yes, there are regrets but it’s acceptable.”
China had several outbreaks within the last month. However, none of them were related to the Olympics. Health authorities have reported 22 cases of an outbreak in Liaoning, east Beijing, on Friday.
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Huang Chun, an official with the pandemic control, stated earlier this week that none of the 450 infections found in the loop had spread to the other members. There have not been any reports of something medically grave.
A large-scale outbreak within the bubble could potentially cause serious injury to athletes and make it impossible for them to compete. This is a bigger concern than any other leakage from China.
“I feel all the protective measures are well in place,” said Fang Yanmin, a tourist taking photos with her friend in front of a statue of Bing Dwen Dwen, the Games’ panda mascot. “There is no need to panic.”
Guo Haifeng, waiting for friends at a nearby subway station, applauded the closed loop, saying it prevents the athletes and public from interrupting each other’s lives. Even if he were offered tickets, he said he wouldn’t go.
“Because of the pandemic, we should try to avoid going to the scene,” he said. “We should restrain ourselves and not affect others.”
After the Games, thousands of Chinese Olympic volunteers and staff will be tested. In order to prevent latent infection, the athletes will need to remain in quarantine for up to a week.
China’s zero-tolerance policy has kept the virus at bay. Since the beginning of the pandemic in China, 4,636 people have died. This is a small number compared with the deaths recorded elsewhere. These deaths all occurred in Wuhan, where the pandemic first broke out in 2020.
“For us, we achieved the goal of zero cases so we can travel with ease,” said Yi, the retiree.
Grépin believes the health and economic benefits of China’s approach have outweighed the costs, borne by those caught up in lockdowns and industries such as tourism, which has been damaged by on-and-off pandemic-related travel restrictions. Although economic growth has slowed down to 4% by the end last year, exports are still strong.
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“They’ve had incredibly low mortality by any standard, and most of the country has lived a relatively normal life for the last two years,” she said.
China’s relative success may make exiting its zero tolerance strategy more difficult. Most of the nation’s 1.4 billion people have not been exposed to the virus, so they haven’t developed antibodies that way. Even though the current vaccination rate remains high, it is possible that vaccines may not be as effective due to the newer variants like omicron.
For at least the near future, that means anyone caught in an outbreak could face lockdowns and repeated testing — and those coming to China will be isolated in a hotel room for two weeks or more. Repercussions of the pandemic, which has now been around for 2 years, continue to mount.
Wu was reporting from Taipei in Taiwan. Olivia Zhang, Associated Press video producer, contributed.