Hong Kong (CNN) – This Wednesday is the start of the 100-day countdown to Winter Olympics In Beijing, but not everyone is in the mood to celebrate and authorities rush to quell the growing outbreak COVID-19.
In February, the Chinese capital will become the first city to host the Summer and Winter Olympics, which are a source of great pride for the Asian country. But it also faces broad challenges.
In addition to growing calls to boycott China’s crackdown in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, the Winter Games are also at risk of being overshadowed by the epidemic and China’s hard-line policy not to catch the virus.
In 2008, the countdown to the 100 Days of Summer Games was marked by a buzz of anticipation across the capital, with music performances, a grand relay marathon around the Olympic Park, and even church prayers.
This time around, it appears to be quieter as a large part of the city shelters in the midst of a new wave of coronavirus infections.
Since October 17, China has recorded more than 200 local infections in about 12 provinces and municipalities, and health officials have warned that outbreak It’s likely to get worse in the next few days.
By international standards, the current outbreak can be considered relatively small, but in China, even one case poses a challenge to the country’s non-proliferation approach, which requires complete eradication of the virus. As a result, the country’s borders remain tightly closed, with strict and lengthy quarantine procedures for all international arrivals.
The Winter Games will mark the biggest test yet of China’s anti-virus measures, as thousands of international athletes and other participants prepare to arrive in Beijing.
Chinese organizers have come up with a solution to hold the games in a bubble around Beijing, which will cover all stadiums and competition venues, as well as accommodations, restaurants, and opening and closing ceremonies.
Fully vaccinated athletes and other participants will be allowed to enter the bubble without being quarantined. Meanwhile, those not fully vaccinated must spend 21 days in quarantine upon arrival. And during the games, they will be asked to stay inside the bubble, thus avoiding any contact with the locals.
The Chinese capital has always been one of the top priorities in the country’s non-proliferation policy. Most international flights to China do not land in Beijing, but in cities such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Shanghai.
And now, amid the growing outbreak, Beijing has also tightened entry restrictions for domestic travelers.
Last week, flights to the capital were canceled from Chinese cities with known infections. Starting this week, officials have denied entry to people who have visited infected sites in the past 14 days, even if they are Beijing residents and wish to return home. Other domestic travelers must submit a negative coronavirus test and undergo a 14-day medical examination.
The city has also suspended its annual marathon, originally scheduled for October 31, while the arrival of the Olympic flame last week saw a low-key party attended by a small crowd.
On Tuesday, some residents posed for photos in front of the Winter Olympics countdown board on the city’s main shopping street; Beijing organizers announced the start of the 100-day countdown with the unveiling of the Games’ medals.
In other parts of China, the response to COVID-19 has been more aggressive.
In the northwestern province of Gansu, authorities have locked down Lanzhou, the capital of the province of 4 million, after it reported six cases on Tuesday. (The city reported a total of 39 cases in the past week.) Residents have been asked not to leave their homes except to seek essential supplies or medical treatment, and tourists have been banned from leaving the city, while bus and taxi services have already been suspended.
In Ejin Banner, a city of 35,000 people in Inner Mongolia and a popular tourist destination, all residents and tourists were ordered to stay in their homes or hotel rooms from Monday. The city also sacked its Communist Party chief and sanctioned six other officials, including the head of the local health commission, for failing to curb the recent outbreak (the city reported a total of 89 cases).
The rapid spread of the virus occurs despite the fact that nearly 75% of China’s population, or more than a billion people, have been fully vaccinated. To improve overall immunity, the Chinese authorities have implemented booster vaccines and launched a nationwide campaign to vaccinate children aged 3-11.
The efficacy of Chinese vaccines, especially against the highly infectious delta variant, has long raised concerns. But Yanzhong Huang, chief global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that even the best vaccines cannot achieve the goal of not spreading the virus set by the Chinese government.
In many countries, cases of infection have been reported among people who have been fully immunized with more effective vaccines, such as those produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.
As a growing list of countries shifts to a new approach to dealing with the virus, China has fostered a model of zero tolerance, and voices calling for a change in approach have been criticized, silenced or even punished.
“It’s a dilemma. If they open up now, we will see a rapid increase in virus cases. People are used to eliminating infections, so they can question the wisdom of changing policy,” Huang said.
While the strategy to eradicate the coronavirus remains widely popular among the Chinese public, there are growing signs that some residents are tired of lockdowns.
Last week, Beijing police detained two residents for trying to climb the walls of their besieged community, in a rare violation of covid-19 restrictions among the largely compliant Chinese public.
On Tuesday, Beijing police said another resident of the same community was arrested for allegedly hitting a community worker while trying to exit the compound through a parking lot.
In Ruili, a city on China’s border with Myanmar, residents have taken to social media to complain about long, strict lockdowns that have derailed their lives. The city relies heavily on cross-border trade and tourism, and has faced frequent outbreaks since March, leaving many families without income, according to publications, some of which have been censored.
After the Beijing Winter Games, Huang said, there will be a “window of opportunity” for China to change its policy against the epidemic.
But the ruling Communist Party will also hold its 20th National Congress at the end of the year, when the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, is expected to seek a third term in power and focus on ensuring social and political stability at all costs. Huang said.
“To ensure a smooth leadership transition, this policy can be maintained until the end of next year,” he added.
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