When China’s leader Xi Jinping inspected the Beijing Winter Olympics venues last week, he laid out his vision for a “green, safe and simple” event.
But diplomatic boycotts and, increasingly, the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus may make safety and simplicity near impossible to achieve, at least by Beijing’s stringent “zero Covid” standards.
With less than a month to go until the opening of the Winter Games, Chinese officials are racing to extinguish a spate of coronavirus infections around the country, including several locally transmitted cases of the Omicron variant.
On Monday, officials in Tianjin, a northern Chinese port city of 14 million, reported 21 domestically transmitted cases, according to China’s National Health Commission, bringing the total over the last two days to 40, including at least two cases of the Omicron variant.
The situation has taken on heightened urgency in China given Tianjin’s proximity to Beijing. Many commuters travel daily between the two cities, often using high-speed rail, which takes about 30 minutes.
In response to the threat of rising infection rates, Tianjin officials have quickly moved to enforce lockdowns in several affected neighborhoods. Widespread testing of the entire city was still underway on Monday. The authorities have also tightened travel restrictions into and out of Tianjin, requiring residents to obtain approval from employers or community officials before leaving. And starting Sunday afternoon, train tickets between Tianjin and Beijing were suspended for purchase.
But there were worrying signs that the Omicron variant had already spread beyond Tianjin. The central Chinese city of Anyang, in Henan Province, reported two local Omicron infections on Monday, traced to a student who had traveled from Tianjin on Dec. 28, spurring concerns that the Omicron variant may have already been circulating in Tianjin for nearly two weeks.
Millions of people in the Chinese cities of Xi’an and Yuzhou, in Henan Province, are also currently being confined to their homes following a recent surge in cases of the Delta variant.
The outbreaks have concerned officials in Beijing, who are stepping up measures to ensure that the virus does not penetrate the capital city’s already substantial fortifications ahead of the Games. On Monday, the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention called on residents who had traveled to areas with recent flare-ups to report themselves to the authorities. That would include anyone who has been in or passed through Tianjin since Dec. 9.
On Monday, Beijing officials also urged residents not to leave during the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins on Jan. 31. For many of the city’s millions of migrant workers, it is the third year in a row in which the coronavirus has spoiled the weeklong holiday, which is typically their only chance to return home and see loved ones.