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Two CNN reporters covering both sides of Beijing's walled-off city. See the difference
02:43 - Source: CNN

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Hong Kong CNN  — 

Many athletes from Western countries were stunned by the stringent Covid-19 restrictions they met upon arrival in Beijing for the Winter Olympics in recent weeks. Some were placed in isolation for weeks after testing positive, while others complained about the bland food served in quarantine.

The measures were a violation of human rights, one Finnish coach argued. But for 1.4 billion people across China, the conditions inside the Olympic bubble present something of a microcosm of the country during the pandemic.

China is one of the few places still adhering to a strict zero-Covid approach, whereby snap lockdowns, mass testing, contact tracing and tight border restrictions are deployed in a bid to stamp out all traces of the disease.

New variants and increasingly frequent outbreaks have raised questions about how sustainable this strategy is. But with thousands of athletes and support staff flying in from around the world – many from countries still seeing high cases after deciding to “live with Covid” – Beijing is taking no chances.

The contrast could not be more stark. Athletes coming from places like the United States, where the effectiveness of face masks is still debated, are now facing daily Covid tests inside the “closed loop” that separates Olympic participants from the rest of the capital.

Some of the measures are merely an inconvenience. For instance, athletes must wear plastic gloves when loading up their plates at the cafeteria. When one CNN reporter ordered steak at a hotel, she was told it could only be served well done – cooked so dry it looked like jerky – as a Covid precaution.

But other measures have taken a heavier toll. More than 160 athletes or team officials have tested positive for Covid and been placed into isolation, with several forced to miss their competitions – a devastating blow for those who have spent years training for this moment. They aren’t allowed to return to the bubble until all symptoms disappear and they return two consecutive negative test results.

An Olympic worker wheels suitcases onto a media transportation bus at the Beijing airport on February 2, ahead of the Winter Olympics.

“My heart and my mind can’t take this anymore,” tweeted Polish short track speed skater Natalia Maliszewska, who was placed into isolation and missed her first competitive event.

Through it all, Chinese authorities and state media have insisted these measures are necessary to prevent the virus spreading – reflecting the zero-Covid benchmark by which even a handful of cases are seen as a dire national threat.

And state media has stepped up its defense, with a number of recent articles citing athletes praising the bubble’s “delicious food, warm-hearted volunteers, strict anti-epidemic measures, (and) perfect snow venues.” The Olympians “received attention and felt satisfied in the closed loop,” said the state-run tabloid Global Times on Tuesday.

The toll of zero-Covid

China’s zero-Covid approach has kept case numbers and hospitalizations low for much of the pandemic following its original outbreak in early 2020.

Then Delta and Omicron hit last year, plunging China into a series of back-to-back outbreaks that haven’t stopped since. Each time an outbreak was contained, another would emerge only weeks later. Both variants are more transmissible than previous strands, meaning the virus spread farther faster and took longer to bring under control – each time requiring massive amounts of resources, manpower and bureaucracy.

Pressure to stop these outbreaks ramped up as China prepared for Lunar New Year and the Games – a major moment of national pride, given Beijing is the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. It’s also the first time in two years China’s has relaxed its border controls, welcoming an influx of foreign visitors.

In the face of such high stakes, local officials resorted to even more stringent measures. An outbreak in the northwestern city of Xi’an prompted a total lockdown, with all residents confined to their homes for a full month – posing a huge logistical challenge for authorities, who had to deliver daily necessities to the doorsteps of 13 million people.

Targeted lockdowns and restrictions were also seen in the cities of Beijing, Anyang, Tianjin and Shenzhen after they reported Covid cases, many of them Omicron. On Monday, the southwestern city of Baise joined the list, with 3.5 million residents banned from leaving their homes after it reported 56 cases within 24 hours.

During these lockdowns, tens of millions of people – like those in the Olympic bubble – faced prolonged isolation and disruption to their daily lives. Fear of food shortages often prompted panic buying. A local outbreak can mean multiple rounds of mass testing for all residents. People mourned not being able to travel during Lunar New Year, an important time for families to gather, similar to Thanksgiving or Christmas.

In Beijing and Shanghai, some reported being trapped in office buildings or shopping malls for days because someone inside had contracted Covid, forcing a snap lockdown that could only end once everyone had tested negative.

And as athletes have pointed out, these restrictions can also take a much heavier toll on people’s well-being and mental health.

Many Xi’an residents, including vulnerable groups like the elderly, flooded social media saying they hadn’t received enough food, basic supplies, even medical care – a sign of official dysfunction as the city struggled to accommodate its own restrictions. Anger ignited online after one heavily pregnant woman was allegedly turned away from the hospital because she didn’t have a valid Covid-19 test, only to reportedly suffer a miscarriage hours later.

Widespread support

With mounting challenges and the threat of future variants, it’s not clear how long China’s zero-Covid policy can continue. Already, the government is changing tact, referring instead to a policy of so-called “dynamic clearing,” which focuses on quickly containing local outbreaks instead of keeping cases at zero nationwide.

However, the general zero-Covid attitude remains largely popular among the Chinese public, in part due to the fact only a tiny fraction of China’s massive population are affected at any one time – and this is widely considered a necessary sacrifice for the country’s safety.

China’s official death toll of under 5,000 is markedly lower than other nations, including the United States, which has recorded more than 905,000 Covid deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

The Chinese government has touted as a political win its ability to keep Covid-19 largely under control throughout much of the pandemic, even as the virus raged overseas.

Many in China view the situation in the US with abject horror; while bodies were piling up in New York during its Covid peak, left in refrigerated trucks on the street and buried in mass graves, people in China were going about their daily lives, feeling safe within the country’s shuttered borders.

Dr. Anthony Fauci’s warning in January that Omicron will “find just about everybody” represents the worst nightmare of many in China – and something experts are determined to avoid at all costs, despite growing uncertainty about the long-term sustainability of zero-Covid and the resource burden it requires. The chaos in Xi’an showed how difficult it is to implement this strategy in one major city – let alone multiple cities if an outbreak ever spread on a larger scale.

“We previously thought Covid-19 could be basically contained through vaccines, but now it seems that there’s no simple method to control it except with comprehensive measures,” Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told Global Times on Sunday.

With no way to prevent imported variants from triggering outbreaks, China has no plans to adjust its Covid strategy for now, he added.

In less than two weeks, the last foreign athletes in the Olympic bubble will pack up their bags and fly home, leaving behind the daily reality of zero-Covid – while those in Beijing and around the nation hunker down for the long haul, waiting for an end that’s nowhere in sight.