Outbreaks of the delta variant in China have caused the governing party to revert back to strict lockdown measures that will imperil the 2022 Winter Olympic Games that are set to begin next February in Beijing.
The highly contagious COVID-19 variant has spurred new outbreaks across a country that, until recently, had been relatively successful at suppressing clusters of new cases thanks to strict quarantine measures and border control policies. The country’s gravitation toward the more extreme shutdowns and restrictions on travel is not sustainable, though, given the toll it would take on the country’s economy, as well as foreign spectators’ ability to see the games in person.
A new flare-up that reached at least 15 provinces was linked to the international airport in Nanjing, the capital city of the eastern Jiangsu province, according to the Associated Press. Now, the government is reverting back to severe containment measures, dubbed “zero-tolerance,” that essentially seal cities off from the outside world at the expense of the economy.
“Lockdown measures have been rapidly imposed in many parts of China,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I have not seen containment measures pursued in such an aggressive manner since April 2020.”
The Chinese government’s move on Sunday to close off the city of Zhangjiajie, home to about 1.5 million people, resembled the country’s early pandemic response to shut down the entire city of Wuhan, where the first COVID-19 outbreaks exploded in early 2020. While the heavy-handed isolation strategy worked to keep outbreaks at bay last year, reverting to that policy could hinder the country’s economy ahead of orchestrating the games.
"The Nanjing outbreak has prompted a national stress test and serves as food for thought for the future of our pandemic response," said Chinese infectious disease expert Dr. Zhang Wenhong.
City-wide shutdowns and tighter travel restrictions could also force athletes to compete in empty stadiums, a safety measure that the International Olympic Committee took for this summer’s Tokyo Games.
“If you have the choice, you would prefer to have spectators,” said IOC Executive Director Christophe Dubi. “Now, let's see how the pandemic evolves, especially in China, and around the globe. And then, let's look at the consequence of participation for spectators.”
The 2022 organizers will move forward with planning the games as of right now, but the IOC has shown that it is willing to postpone over concerns of another COVID-19 wave. Dubi said the team of Tokyo organizers was advising the team responsible for putting on February's Beijing Games about methods to make the events as safe as possible, “down to the minute details of the transportation plan and how you ensure the bubble remains safe with a workforce going in and out.”
“We are in the final stretch of preparations,” Dubi said. “Yes, a lot of lessons to learn, a lot of exchange between the organizing committees.”
China has, so far, given at least one dose of its state-developed vaccines to 28% of the population, according to tracking from Our World in Data. In addition to low vaccination rates overall, there is concern among public health experts that the shots from Sinopharm and Sinovac, the two largest vaccine makers in China, do not provide sufficient protection against severe cases of COVID-19.
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Original Author: Cassidy Morrison