After two years of isolation from the world, Beijing is bracing for the arrival of thousands of foreign Olympians, officials, journalists and support staff — including from countries where the highly-spread Omicron variant is wreaking havoc.
Whether Chinese authorities can ensure the safety of the Olympics and prevent any contingencies from spreading to Beijing is the ultimate test of China’s zero-epidemic strategy. The ruling Communist Party insists on strict prevention and control measures as a testament to the supposed superiority of its authoritarian political system. The strategy has kept infections and deaths low, but has also created a painful lockdown for millions and insulates China from the world.
And now, Beijing is applying the same measures to the Olympics. To limit the spread of infection, it enclosed the entire Olympics in what authorities called a “closed-loop system” — a bubble completely cut off from the rest of the city.
Quarantine is arguably the most ambitious ever. The NBA tried something similar when it established a quarantine zone inside Disneyland in Orlando, Florida, designed to keep players and staff safe in the final stages of the 2019-20 season. But what Beijing is about to try is on a completely different level.
The NBA “bubble” houses about 350 players from 22 teams, while the Beijing bubble welcomes about 11,000 people from around the world — who will travel through three playing areas 111 miles (180 kilometers) apart.
Securing the bubble requires a lot of manpower, meticulous planning, pervasive surveillance and strict government enforcement — and Omicron’s arrival only makes that more challenging.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said in a statement Wednesday that 1.53% of tests carried out on arrival have so far come back positive, compared with 0.02% of routine screening tests carried out within the closed loop. It does not specify the total number of tests in both cases.
“So far, all cases have been within 5 days of arrival and are therefore assessed as imported (infection before arrival in Beijing),” the statement said. “No infections have occurred within the closed loop.”
As of Friday, more than 2,000 competitors, including athletes, officials, members of the International Olympic Committee and the media, had arrived in Beijing, according to the official app for the Beijing Winter Olympics. Thousands of Chinese volunteers and staff have spent days or even weeks in closed loops.
Here’s a breakdown of how bubbles should work.
Participants will be confined in a “closed loop” from the moment they land to the moment they take off. During their stay, they will compete, work, eat and sleep without engaging with the wider Chinese population.
The “closed loop” consists of a series of stadiums, a conference center and more than 70 hotels, with hotels in central Beijing being fenced and heavily guarded by police; it even has its own transportation system, with 4,000 cars dedicated to transporting participants. Shipping from one place to another.
Instead of a giant Olympic bubble, the system is formed by a network of interconnected mini-bubbles. They are concentrated in three areas: downtown Beijing, where ice competitions and opening and closing ceremonies will be held; the suburbs of Yanqing, where alpine skiing and skating rinks are held; and the neighboring city of Zhangjiakou in Hebei province, where Nordic skiing and most freestyle skiing and skating will be held Snowboard activity.
The three areas are connected by high-speed rail and expressways. To maintain separation, even train cars were separated, and closed-loop buses were assigned specially marked lanes. Drivers not participating in the Olympics will be fined for entering these lanes.
Chinese authorities will do everything they can to avoid the bubble bursting, and residents have been warned not to rush to help if an Olympic vehicle crashes.
“In the event of a traffic accident with a vehicle dedicated to the Winter Olympics, please keep a safe distance,” Beijing’s transportation department said in a statement on social media earlier this month. .”
Athletes, staff and volunteers within the closed loop will also be separated from spectators, with their own transportation and entrance. Beijing organizers announced this week that in response to the pandemic, tickets for the Olympics would not be sold to the public, but instead distributed by the authorities.
jump into the bubble
Entering the bubble is already a challenge given China’s determination to rule out any coronavirus cases.
Anyone entering the bubble must be fully vaccinated or face an additional 21-day quarantine upon arrival in Beijing before being allowed into the bubble.
The journey begins 14 days before departure. Participants must limit interaction with others to avoid contracting Covid. They also have to upload their temperature and answer questions about their health using the app daily.
Those heading to the Olympics will have to take two Covid tests before departure. With few international flights allowed to land in Beijing, most participants had to take special charter flights. Upon arrival, they will be greeted by staff in hazmat suits and undergo another test before being escorted by police on a designated bus to the hotel.
What’s it like inside?
Once in the bubble, participants will be subject to a series of strict prevention and control measures. They will be tested daily for the coronavirus and must wear masks at all times.
The risk of catching Covid is very high. Competitors who test positive will be removed from the competition immediately. Those with symptoms will be sent to designated hospitals for treatment, and those who are asymptomatic will be sent to isolation facilities. They won’t be allowed back into the bubble until all symptoms are gone and they’ve tested negative twice in a row — meaning they’ll almost certainly miss their activity.
PCR testing for the Beijing Winter Olympics is also stricter than other sporting events such as the NBA and NHL, meaning they can recover positives at lower viral loads.
A positive test can also affect that person’s teammates and colleagues. Anyone who has been in contact with an infected person for more than 15 minutes without a mask is considered a close contact and will be tested twice a day.
Chinese authorities have not disclosed how many people will be in the “closed-loop system”.
Chinese staff and volunteers have to stay for the entire duration of the event – which means they will miss the Lunar New Year holiday. It’s China’s biggest holiday and the most important time for family reunions – some liken it to Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Years combined. To exit the bubble, they must also undergo a strict 21-day quarantine at a designated facility.
Chinese organizers have touted innovative technology employed inside the bubble to keep it safe during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Will it work?
The International Olympic Committee has suggested that early detection of Covid-19 cases among arrivals is a sign that a “closed loop system” is at work.
“All data to date suggest that daily PCR testing combined with quarantine and close contact policies means a very safe closed loop with no infectious participants,” it said in a statement.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said seeing cases in the Olympic bubble was not surprising, or even inevitable.
“Given the high transmissibility of the new variant, I believe there will be some infections at the Olympics,” Huang said. “The question is whether these contingencies will develop into bursts in a bubble — or worse, spill over and lead to bursts in cities and beyond.”
Huang added that he was “cautiously optimistic” that China’s zero-coronavirus strategy could succeed, citing “unprecedented draconian measures.”
Earlier this month, a variant of Omicron was found in a neighborhood in Beijing, prompting authorities to quickly seal off an office building and a residential complex. Several delta cases have since been reported.
Authorities warned of “double pressure from domestic and imported cases” but maintained a confident tone.
“The overall situation is still under control,” Huang Chun, an official with the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee, said at a news conference last week, adding that there were no plans to lock down the city or change the coronavirus control rules for the Winter Olympics.
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