China leans into a zero-COVID strategy before the Olympics with lockdowns, tight ‘bubble’

Sudden shutdowns that capture entire neighborhoods of their homes. A test cure that requires millions to be washed in a single weekend. And a bizarre request to Hong Kong pet lovers to hand over their hamsters after a mini-outbreak at a pet store.

Unlike the approach in much of the rest of the world, China is implementing a “zero-COVID” approach to the pandemic that reflects Beijing’s authoritarian instincts, but which may be unsustainable.

Ordinary citizens – and entire megacities – suffer the hardships of constant virus monitoring and quarantine, while scientists wonder if the Chinese will have enough natural immunity and antibodies from domestic vaccines to keep up with variants repeatedly extracted from coronavirus discovered in Wuhan two years ago.

While Europe and the US have seen far higher reported death rates than China, Western nations have learned hard lessons about living with the virus, as nations consider a focal point for an endemic phase in which COVID-19, which does not appear to disappear, is treated as another respiratory disease.

The draconian policy is being put under a global microscope as its communist leaders prepare to host the Winter Olympics in Beijing from Friday and other cities around the country, while trying to prevent major outbreaks of the highly contagious omicron variant .

“The zero COVID policy has never made sense, and the Chinese who cling to it, in the middle of the omicron, will be in vain,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Zero-COVID is not a sustainable approach to a virus that was always destined to be endemic and potentially dangerous, as it may have left the population of a zero-COVID country with little immunity and no risk-taking ability.”

But, he said, “it is not surprising that such a policy is still in place in an authoritarian communist country where the people are accustomed to such measures.”

Beijing is shutting down residential complexes as omicron pops up in larger numbers on the brink of the Olympics, while athletes, workers and journalists will be completely cut off from locals in the two-week extravaganza.

Authorities discovered over 20 cases over the weekend, bringing the total number of infections from its most recent outbreak to over 100, according to the South China Morning Post.

Residents of residential complexes in the Fengtai and Anzhenli districts of the Chaoyang district of Beijing are not allowed to leave their homes and will be tested daily after the recent increase in local cases.

Xiong’an New Area, home to 1.2 million people southwest of Beijing, was quietly locked down a few days ago, raising eyebrows about the extent to which authorities will go to try to stiffen the virus.

Reported cases would be enviable elsewhere in the world. But the Chinese government has shown no tolerance for any cases since the start of the pandemic, and Wuhan imposed the first set of lockdowns in January 2020 and stuck to the model as other countries used lighter economic restrictions or went on to hope for vaccines, treatments and masking. kept the virus in check.

Earlier this month, a woman, identified as Ms. Wang, wrote on Chinese social media giant WeChat that she went on a blind date and was stuck in the man’s house because his community in Zhengzhou went into a sudden shutdown. It was unclear how many days she spent there, but he was reportedly a good cook.

Other stories have been heartbreaking, including videos showing children going into isolation in hospitals without their parents.

Xian, a city of 13 million known for its ancient Terracotta Army sculptures, recently began lifting strict COVID-19 restrictions that were in place for three weeks.

An account on the Chinese social media platform Weibo reported on a pregnant woman who had an abortion outside a hospital after she was denied access because she did not present a virus test, which created outrage over the strict restrictions. Officials apologized for negligence at the hospital and blamed, according to NBC News, for an “inadequate” emergency plan for triaging patients.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, recently allowed pet stores to start selling hamsters and other small animals after a campaign to kill over 2,000 of the animals due to a small outbreak of the virus in a store, leading to outrage and offers from outsiders to adopt the pets.

The reporting from China is very limited, but you get these fragmentary reports [that] the population is getting restless and very worried, ”said William Schaffner, an expert in infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University. “How long can they sustain this, not only from a public health perspective, but from a social, political and economic perspective? They hang in there so far.”

Vaccine issues

China has administered 1.27 billion doses of its home-developed vaccines, resulting in 85% of the population being fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, an online tracker. However, studies suggest that Sinovac, a prominent Chinese vaccine using an inactivated virus, is not very effective against omicron, raising questions about the country’s ability to stiffen the arms of the fast-moving variant for posterity.

Former Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CNBC this month that Chinese authorities were playing a vain game of “Whakc-a-Mole” in an attempt to wipe out and curb even the smallest outbreaks. Unlike in other major countries, China’s people do not build the natural defenses needed to slow down COVID-19 in the long run.

“Outside Wuhan, the prevalence is very low, so there is not much immunity in the population,” said Mr. Gottlieb. “And they’ve put in place vaccines that have been far less effective against omicron.”

Beijing’s most pressing priority is to host a virus-free Olympics, which will be held in a closed system that cuts off athletes, workers and journalists from the rest of the city.

The process starts at the airport and includes high-speed trains to get participants to venues. In short, no one outside the bubble can enter and no one inside the bubble can get out.

The South China Morning Post said organizers discovered 37 new infections among athletes at the airport or Olympic home base, or “bubble,” over the weekend, bringing the total to 176 since Jan. 23, raising questions about whether the closed system will work. , or if the locals will be protected but not those inside the bubble.

Beijing limited tickets to domestic spectators and in January limited additional audiences to those invited to be on site. As a sign of the drastic measures, the authorities told the locals not to help anyone who comes across a car accident on motorways that are only for the Olympics.

Athletes will be tested daily with highly sensitive PCR tests, which are sensitive and can detect remnants of the virus after a person is no longer contagious, raising questions about whether some competitors will be frozen out of the competition for no good reason.

In the wake of the suffocating atmosphere, authorities asked foreign athletes not to protest its treatment of ethnic minorities. Officials recently said protesting athletes could be “subject to some punishment,” which raised the alarm.

Asked about potential threats, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday: “I think we spoke to this last summer and conveyed support for freedom of speech for individuals.”

The Biden administration has announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games, allowing U.S. athletes to compete but sending no official government officials to watch them. A handful of other countries, including the UK, Canada and Australia, have followed suit.

China’s nationalist state media, meanwhile, claim that criticism of its approach to the Olympics and virus control reflects a “sour grape” mentality in the West, which has struggled with far higher death rates despite the virus first appearing in China.

“Slander against China’s dynamic zero-COVID policy by some countries in the West, particularly the United States, is not convincing,” a Global Times opinion piece said Monday. “In light of the pandemic, some countries in the West have already laid down their arms and are unqualified to blame and point fingers at China regarding China’s rational anti-epidemic efforts, which have in fact proved more effective in slowing down the spread of the virus.”

After the Olympics, the Chinese authorities will have to consider how and when to relax the strict border controls and restrictions on movement throughout the country, especially if the virus finds a way to attack cities that have not had much previous infection.

“I guess that’s the question – can there be waves of infection in China that come later than the rest of the world, simply because they have been delayed and this virus will not be denied?” Dr. Schaffner said. “The impact will not only be on the Chinese people, but the rest of the world, because they could be variant generators.”

For more information, visit the Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

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