BBefore Zhang Hua goes downstairs for breakfast, he puts on a mask and rubber gloves. He leaves his hotel room and walks the hallways while keeping a safe distance from others. Then, he boards a specially commissioned bus on dedicated lanes for his work assisting foreign broadcasters preparing for the Winter Olympics.
In the media library, he takes his daily Covid test, and he could eat a meal delivered by a robot. Depending on where he is staying, Zhang may be allowed to visit his hotel’s gym later or go to another hotel’s restaurant, but otherwise that is the only trip he can take.
This is life inside one of the “closed-loop” bubbles set up by China to try to keep the Winter Olympics, which are due to start on February 4, Covid-free. Zhang, who used an alias, has been in a bubble since January 21.
“With the buses, getting out is easy,” he told the Guardian. “This [the loop] does not affect the way we work much, but it affects our lives, especially meals, and life is not as free as outside the loop.
Throughout the pandemic, the Chinese government has maintained, with great success, a “zero-Covid” strategy, aided by strict border controls.
Just a few months ago, weeks went by without any community cases and outbreaks were quickly brought under control. But then Omicron arrived.
The number of cases is low compared to the rest of the world, but infections have been found in several provinces and cities, including Beijing. The closed-loop system is now responsible not only for keeping the Games as Covid-free as possible, but also for ensuring that the influx of around 11,000 foreign athletes, officials, employees and guests does not trigger an epidemic more wide that China cannot control.
What is the loop?
The “closed-loop” system designed for the Games consists of three interconnected competition zone bubbles, where participants and employees will work or compete, eat and sleep, without ever coming into contact with the general population.
The first covers downtown Beijing and the venues for the ice competitions and the opening and closing ceremonies. The second is the Yanqing suburb venue for the alpine skiing and luge events, and the third is in Zhangjiakou, 200 km (125 miles) northwest of Hebei province, for the biathlon events. Nordic, freestyle skiing and snowboarding.
Each contains a number of stadiums and venues, convention centers and dozens of designated hotels, and is connected by high-speed rail with designated loop cars and highways with dedicated loop tracks. Other drivers crossing these lanes risk fines and people have been warned not to rush to help if a looping vehicle has an accident.
At the arrival
The process for foreign participants begins long before they arrive in Beijing. For two weeks before departure, they are required to monitor and upload their temperature and other information to a health app daily.
After receiving two negative Covid tests within 24 hours, they will board a dedicated plane. When they disembark in Beijing, they will be greeted by workers in biohazard protective gear.
“At the airport, it’s kind of scary, it’s almost like a hospital treating second wave Covid patients,” a reporter told The Associated Press.
Participants will pass through dedicated gates and receive their third test, before one of some 4,000 special vehicles takes them to their bubble and a barricaded hotel from the public.
They will be monitored and protected by officers who have gone through three weeks of quarantine and isolation, and assisted by thousands of staff such as Zhang, who will again have to self-quarantine before they can return home. In at least one location, employees wear underarm thermometers that trigger an alarm if their temperature rises too high.
What if someone tests positive?
A participant who tests positive goes to an isolation center for quarantine, or to hospital if ill. It could start with a midnight knock on the door.
Isolation rooms are approximately 25 square meters in size and have an opening window. Those staying in the rooms will get three meals a day and free Wi-Fi, according to the games manual, and they will stay there for at least 10 days. If they have no symptoms and tests show a low viral load for three consecutive days, they can join the closed loop under the close contact measures.
People found to be close contacts whose work can be done by someone else must go to the isolation center for at least 21 days or leave China within 24 hours of testing negative. If their job is critical or they are a competitor, they should self-isolate in their room, travel to competitions alone, train in their room or an isolated space, and get tested every day, including six hours before his ordeal. So far, only a few athletes have tested positive since arriving in Beijing. Some, like American bobsledder Josh Williamson, caught Covid while still at home. Williamson hopes to recover and test negative in time to travel to Beijing for his team’s event on February 15.
“Isn’t it ironic,” he said recently, “that after four years of hard work, all that’s left to do is sit down, rest, recover and recover. ‘have faith ? The things I have the hardest time doing.
After the Games
The Tokyo Summer Olympics were also held under extraordinary pandemic measures, but foreigners were allowed to travel to the city after two weeks. At the end of the Beijing Games, everyone will be sent directly home by plane without detour.
For some of the visiting foreigners, the closed loop is a frustrating experience – so close and yet so far removed from life outside. Zhang said he was happy with the measures and supported China’s efforts in the fight against Covid, but he was worried about the added complexities and the influx of people.
Outbreaks and lockdowns are still happening across the country. Beijing has shown no signs of changing its zero-Covid strategy and is banking its international and domestic reputation on the closed-loop system and holding a successful, epidemic-free Olympics.
Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu