‘Not sustainable’: Omicron tests China’s zero Covid policy as first cases detected

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‘Not sustainable’: Omicron tests China’s zero Covid policy as first cases detected
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Like many middle class Chinese, the 26-year-old banker from Beijing spent the first two weeks of January celebrating the new year. She visited Dior, shopped at Walmart and lunched at Quanjude, the city’s best-known Peking roast duck restaurant. One evening, she watched a standup comedy show. And on one weekend, she drove with friends to a ski resort on the outskirts of the capital.

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Last week it was announced she was Beijing’s Omicron “patient zero”. Authorities released a detailed account of her itinerary dating back to 31 December, and her mundane – if a little extravagant – lifestyle became the talking point of China. Authorities also noted that she had been triple vaccinated with Sinovac.

In a country striving to “eliminate” coronavirus, this meant that more than 13,000 people, and all the places visited by the young woman in Beijing – including the ski resort – have been swiftly tested. Her block of flats and workplace were also sealed off. In press conferences, officials urged caution to residents in the city of more than 20 million as they reassured them of the efforts they were taking to keep them safe.

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Omicron is unlike previous variants. Chinese public health officials, like western scientists, admit it is highly transmissible and difficult to detect. At least nine cities across six provinces in mainland China have reported Omicron cases. Since 15 January, Beijing has reported fewer than 10 local infections of the Delta and Omicron variants. They are a tiny case count compared with the rest of the world but enough to raise alarm in the Chinese capital.

The reporting of cases in Beijing has come less than three weeks before the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics on 4 February. On Monday, China’s president, Xi Jinping, vowed in a virtual speech at the Davos World Economic Forum that his country would present “a streamlined, safe and splendid Games to the world”.

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There is a clear sense of urgency in the Chinese capital, partly because of the lunar new year celebrations, which begin on 1 February. The official holiday travel period began on Monday, and is expected to be busier than the previous two years but still nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. People have been asked not to travel, but few mandates are in place.

Instead, there are myriad rules and regulations, which students and migrant workers, in particular, are furiously studying to see if they can get home for the holiday. Some worry they will be blocked from returning to Beijing after the holiday, or sent into unaffordable hotel quarantine.

Authorities are showing little tolerance, suspending flights and rail routes, and cancelling Olympic ticket sales for the general public. Some cities and provinces have also banned some entrants coming from virus hotspots, while others have enacted mandatory testing, entry applications, or other measures.

“There have been no epidemics in the places I’ve stayed or the street I live on, and I’ve done a nucleic acid test more than 10 times,” said one netizen hoping to travel home from Shaanxi province. “Why can’t I go back yet, still?”

On Monday, Beijing authorities blamed the city’s first case on a package from Canada and urged citizens not to order goods from abroad, a claim that public health officials in Ottawa and numerous scientists dismissed as “extremely unlikely”. Regardless, officials went on to say they had found the virus on six other packages sent from Toronto.

It is still unclear whether Beijing will avoid an outbreak such as in nearby Tianjin in the next few weeks. Instead, it once again puts China’s zero-tolerance Covid containment strategy under a renewed international spotlight.

In the past two years, this controversial method achieved much success – although the personal and societal cost was high.

“[The] detection of Omicron variant in many cities in China including Beijing shows how difficult it could be to maintain the zero Covid policy,” said Prof Jin Dong-yan, of Hong Kong University’s School of Biomedical Sciences.

Without changing course (and it is probably already too late before the winter Games), experts expect more extreme measures to be announced in the coming weeks. Earlier this month, the Beijing municipality’s traffic management authority asked people to stay away from the special vehicles used to ferry athletes to and from the Winter Olympics venues in the event of a car incident.

Jin said that because the winter Games would be conducted in a “bubble” – meaning athletes will not be allowed to leave venues and tickets will only be distributed to a selected few – Omicron “might not affect the Winter Olympics significantly”.

In the long run, however, the zero tolerance policy is “not sustainable and unnecessary, and the arrival of Omicron might make it even more challenging”, he said. “But China is too big a ship to change direction. It does not have the wisdom or capability to do it as neatly as Hong Kong or Taiwan. It is challenging and costly either to maintain it or to give it up.”

Chen Xi, a public health expert at Yale school of public health, said that although China kept insisting on the “zero Covid” policy, the authorities were also hedging their bets. “Many think China is only using the zero tolerance policy, but in my view, it is also waiting and seeing,” he said, adding that Chinese experts have realised the nature of the disease is also evolving.

“In fact, a number of Chinese thinktankers are now watching closely to (see) what extent this new variant would result in the damage of the health system, and how prepared China would be in meeting the challenge should it spread,” he said. “It is important to have such data before Beijing eventually decides to gradually open up.”

In the last few weeks, Chinese experts have been urging citizens to receive their booster jabs. In a widely publicised speech early this month, Zhang Wenhong, one of China’s best-known infectious diseases experts, explained why vaccines helped reduce hospitalisation and death.

“We should allow arguments over inoculation, but we should also realise that the role of the vaccines should not be underestimated,” he told an audience in Shanghai. “If we do not actively get vaccinated and build a strong immunity barrier, we’d return to the pandemic that occurred in 1918.”

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