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Opinion: Omicron and the Olympics could be on a collision course with China’s zero-Covid strategy

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An indication of how uncertain the situation has become for Olympic organizers was last week’s decision by North America’s National Hockey League (NHL) to skip the Games amid the league’s surge in coronavirus cases and potential lengthy quarantine in China if players test positive in Beijing.
Last week, a Delta Air Lines flight from Seattle to Shanghai was turned around midair due to new airport cleaning rules that an airline spokesperson called “not operationally viable.”
Meanwhile, China is battling one of its worst outbreaks of the year in Xi’an, a city 600 miles southwest of Beijing, where 13 million residents are currently on lockdown. The city reported 175 new local symptomatic cases on Tuesday — the highest daily count in nearly two years.

China, which has relied on a number of strategies, including vaccine passports, widespread surveillance, strict border control, mass testing and targeted lockdowns to stem the spread of Covid-19, remains determined to stick to its zero-Covid strategy while most of the world tries to live with the virus.

The discovery last week of just one case in the Chinese city of Dongxing, which borders Vietnam, prompted authorities to place 200,000 people into lockdown.
Long-term, however, this strategy will continue to slow economic growth and potentially stir social unrest. Last week the World Bank cut growth forecasts for China, citing the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and poor performance in the property sector.
And when entire cities are put on lockdown, it makes it that much more difficult to nudge China to a consumer and services driven economy, which analysts are recommending. China’s economy is also due to take another hit after the National Health Commission announced travel restrictions during the Lunar New Year holiday, which starts just before the Olympics in February this year.

Dr. Syra Madad, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Harvard Belfer Center, told me Beijing’s zero-Covid strategy is unrealistic and unsustainable. “What we should never tolerate is substantial morbidity and mortality… While we have tools to prevent severe outcomes (i.e. antivirals more readily available with great safety and efficacy profiles), we still need to build sustainable policies that look at public health, societal tolerance, and economic prosperity with the goal of saving lives first.”

While China has announced only a handful of Omicron cases so far, its zero-Covid strategy could face serious challenges if the highly contagious variant starts spreading more widely there. This is particularly troubling since Omicron is proving resistant to China’s Sinovac booster.

The 197 new cases reported across China Tuesday are just a small fraction of what’s being recorded in much smaller countries such as the United Kingdom — which has been logging more than 100,000 cases daily. But if case numbers continue to rise, Chinese authorities might be tempted to ease up on its zero-Covid policy in order to avoid unrest and economic dislocation.
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Indeed how long can China, which pre-Covid was the world’s No. 1 exporter of tourists, continue to keep folks pent up at home?
I have lived and worked most of my journalism career in Asia, and the one thing I have learned is that there is nothing more anathema to the Chinese Communist Party than losing face. In terms of the Winter Olympics, that could mean locking up millions, adding more technological and human muscle to increase surveillance, and shutting down entire sectors of the economy in and around Beijing to clear smog laden skies. In short: whatever it takes.
A big question now is whether President Xi Jinping — on track to become China’s longest-serving leader since the founding of the People’s Republic — can continue to rely on autocratic domestic policies at least until the CCP holds its 20th Party Congress in late 2022, let alone until 2049 when China marks 100 years since its founding.
Xi’s lofty ambitions to cast himself as a global historical figure and China as a superpower have suffered due to the pandemic. The President has not travelled overseas for almost two years and skipped in-person attendance at such high-profile events as the 2021 G20 leaders’ summit, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit and the COP26 climate talks in Scotland.
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While out of sight overseas, the CCP remains very much present at home. The massive security apparatus installed over the years to monitor dissenters and law-breakers, and more recently people in quarantine or lockdowns, is second to none. An unrivaled network of at least 567 million CCTV cameras — including electronic eyes outside people’s front doors and sometimes inside — adds up to six times more surveillance cameras than are operating in the US.
Beyond Covid-19, several countries — including the US, Canada, Britain and Australia — have also announced a largely symbolic diplomatic boycott of the Games in protest of China’s human rights record.

With a little over a month before the Games start, leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have their work cut out for them.

What if Omicron, or a more virulent strain of Covid, busts through existing vaccine defenses and causes an outbreak during the February Games?

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Can Chinese officials — who initially kept the 2003 SARS outbreak under wraps for months and have not been fully transparent about the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan — be trusted to provide realistic case figures? Just a few weeks ago, a citizen journalist who made a name for herself for her coverage of China’s initial response to Covid-19 and as a result was sentenced to four years in jail, 38-year-old Zhang Zhan, was teetering on the edge of death after initiating a hunger strike.

It is something the International Olympic Committee and national teams need to ask themselves before boarding flights to Beijing. That is, if the flights are even still operating.



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