Will China’s zero-Covid crackdown ruin the Olympics? As Omicron variant tears through the country, a draconian response from the hardline government fuels fears pandemic could hit sporting spectacular
The timing could not be worse.
The games, which open in Beijing early next month, are supposed to be another spectacular showcase for the rise of a global superpower despite diplomatic boycotts of the event over the Communist regime’s human rights atrocities.
Their success is seen as essential by a Chinese leadership determined to ride out the controversy.
But such hopes could now be in jeopardy. Covid cases were recently detected in Tianjin — a city of 14 million just 70 miles from Beijing — leading to mass testing, sealing off residential areas, road closures, and the suspension of many trains and flights in the hope of protecting the capital.
Then, on Saturday, an Omicron case cropped up in Beijing itself involving a woman who had not left the capital over the previous two weeks — leading to fears for the ‘green, safe and simple’ Games their dictatorial leader has demanded.
It is just a fortnight before Chinese New Year, when hundreds of millions of people move around to meet their families — but Beijing residents are being urged to stay at home to protect the prestigious event.
For President Xi Jinping is not just trying to preserve his Games. He is also trying to safeguard his ruthless ‘Zero-Covid’ strategy which he regards as proof that China’s authoritarian style of government is superior to democracy.
A paramilitary police officer gestures at the photographer in front of the mascot of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics
Winter Olympics-themed installation is set up along Chang’an Avenue in Beijing on Friday
The Communist regime argues that its strict policy has ensured the country of 1.4 billion citizens has had fewer cases than Cumbria during the pandemic, thus saving huge numbers of lives.
It has also given away substantial quantities of vaccines to curry favour from less wealthy countries.
But this strategy is under threat from Omicron and other mutations, while China’s old-style vaccines offer less protection than Western versions and there are continuing concerns over the validity of their pandemic data.
So just as the rest of the world is starting to live with an endemic disease, the country that had the first outbreak in Wuhan is trapped in a strategy some experts believe to be unsustainable.
‘Xi Jinping says it’s the right policy, so who dares tell him he is wrong?’ said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS, University of London.
‘Yet there is enormous cost, not just in terms of economic cost but also in human suffering.’
China pioneered lockdown two years ago with its 76-day shutdown of Wuhan after officials disastrously covered-up the outbreak, punished whistleblower doctors and delayed imposing controls until after the New Year festivities.
Its lockdowns are far more stringent than in the West. In Wuhan, there were reports of people having doors to homes welded shut and of a teenage boy with disabilities dying after relatives were carted off into quarantine.
Since then, the longest lockdown has been in Xi’an, famous for its terracotta warriors and home to 13 million people, where more than 2,000 cases — including 142 Omicron infections — have been detected.
A medical worker wearing a full protective outfit swabs the throat of a man during a COVID-19 test in Beijing
A medical worker wearing a full protective outfit walks while people wearing face masks line up for Covid tests
It was shut down three days before Christmas, with 45,000 people sent to quarantine camps, although some restrictions were lifted at the weekend.
Social media showed rows of cramped metal boxes, brought into the city for people suspected of having Covid-19.
The policy is so strict that one heavily pregnant woman was seen sitting on a stool outside a hospital in a pool of blood after being turned away by doctors since her negative test fell marginally outside their 48-hour rule.
She later miscarried. The hospital was shut down to ‘rectify’ mistakes after an outcry.
Another woman said her father died after failing to get treatment following heart problems. There are claims of food shortages, with despairing people trading electronic goods for tiny quantities of rice, noodles or vegetables.
‘Xi’an residents are worried about death from sickness and hunger rather than Covid-19,’ blogged one party functionary, who was promptly dismissed.
At the start of January, a million people in Yuzhou were locked down after three asymptomatic infections. In another city, curbs were imposed so fast that a woman on a blind date dinner with a man at his home was locked in with him.
Last week another 5.5 million people in Anyang, a central city, were ordered into lockdown. Some Omicron infections were linked to a student who returned to Tiajinjin in December, indicating the contagious variant had been circulating since then.
On Friday the authorities said Zhuhai had detected seven Omicron cases, including an infected kindergarten worker who had had a booster jab. Travel routes with the city of 2 million people beside Macau were instantly suspended.
‘I don’t see how Omicron can be stopped,’ said Simon Wain-Hobson, the virologist who discovered the genetic blueprint of HIV. ‘You seal off a city, but if you have a few cases inside it will spread.’
Beijing boasts of a ‘dynamic zero-Covid’ strategy that depends on mass vaccination with widespread testing, monitoring movements, quarantine camps, strict border controls and use of technology for mass contact tracing.
Yet other countries that adopted similar policies to squash Covid such as Australia, Singapore and New Zealand have started to soften their stance.
‘I am amazed China has managed to do what it has done so far,’ said epidemiologist John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Sage advisory body.
‘But it does not seem feasible to keep it up, especially when so many countries are starting to live with the virus.’
Professor Edmunds believes that as Covid becomes an endemic global disease it will continue to mutate, but open societies will be protected from the worst impact by a mix of vaccinations and natural immunity sparked by previous infections.
‘As the rest of the world relaxes, it will stop worrying so much about transmission as there will be good protection, so there will be lots of infections circulating and this makes the risk of incursion for China far greater. And you’ll always get incursions.’
China claims it has had only 4,636 deaths — with 3,869 in Wuhan in the initial outbreak. Britain, a country of 67 million, has recorded 151,987 Covid deaths.
But there is scepticism over Beijing’s figures. A government adviser told me they struggled at start of the pandemic to get to grips with the virus due to unreliability of data from Wuhan, while the CIA reportedly warned the White House that China had ‘vastly understated’ infection numbers.
The Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, which will play host to the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2022 Winter Olympics
People on swim rings ride a slide covered with snow at a park near the Olympic Tower in Beijing on Sunday
A doctor in Wuhan estimated the number of deaths to be up to four times higher than reported due to counting irregularities.
Other analysts have speculated the true Chinese fatality figure could be in excess of 1 million.
One pointed out that as the virus rampaged in Wuhan in the first three weeks of January 2020, up to 7 million people left the city by air and rail — making it ‘inconceivable’ there were not far more Chinese cases.
Calculations based on cremations and funeral urns estimated 46,800 deaths in Wuhan. On one single day in February, local officials privately reported more than twice as many Covid cases in their province as Beijing reported publicly for the entire nation.
‘Official Chinese government figures for Covid mortality over the past two years are falsified and impossible,’ said Milton Leitenberg, a researcher at the Centre of International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.
Officials say they have fully vaccinated more than eight in ten citizens — but there are concerns over comparatively low efficacy rates and short immunity provided by China’s inactivated vaccines, especially against Omicron.
Studies suggest antibodies triggered by the vaccines fail to provide sufficient protection even after a booster jab, so Beijing is considering fourth jabs with updated vaccines based on inactivated Omicron.
Scientists also fear letting the virus rip might have disastrous consequences after low infection levels.
Local experts believe their strategy can contain infections until vaccines improve and the virus weakens.
‘Zero-Covid is the right policy for China and Hong Kong,’ said Ivan Hung, an infectious diseases expert in Hong Kong.
It is also vital for President Xi as he strengthens the regime’s grip at home and flexes China’s muscles abroad — not least since he is preparing for a key party congress in October that will anoint him in power for another five years.
Those questioning Xi’s strategy suffer savage backlash. For example, last summer, a leading scientist who said countries must ‘learn to coexist with the virus’ was attacked as a foreign stooge.
A teacher was detained for 15 days and trashed on social media after suggesting his city should loosen restrictions.
Although the policy seems popular, there are signs of unrest. Zhang Wenmin, a former journalist, wrote a widely-shared but now-deleted article that challenged the official slogan ‘we must do it at all cost’.
President Xi insists ‘the world is turning its eyes to China and China is ready.’ But the big question now is whether he is skating on such thin ice that even his iron grip can’t contain Omicron to protect his controversial Olympics?