Authorities in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong are scrambling to contain outbreaks of the omicron variant of COVID-19 ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, which open in Beijing on Feb. 4.
Games organizers said they had canceled plans to sell tickets to the public for the events. The decision follows an existing ban on international spectators.
Instead, spectators will be “organized” to watch the Games, with no details given about how they would be selected, the Beijing Olympics organizing committee said in a statement, saying the move was made “in order to protect the health and safety of Olympic-related personnel and spectators.”
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has persisted with a “zero-COVID” approach to the pandemic, often imposing total lockdowns in major cities or across neighborhoods, coupled with mass testing programs to try to contain the spread of cases.
But the highly-transmissible omicron variant has strained the existing system to the maximum in recent weeks, with clusters reported in the northern port city of Tianjin, the southern manufacturing hub of Guangdong, and the Chinese capital.
Japanese camera maker Canon shut down its Zhuhai factory after three decades amid the outbreak, citing “huge operational difficulties” and the “long-term ravages of COVID-19.” Germany’s Volkswagen and Fengtai Motors also shut down their factories in Tianjin.
A Tianjin resident surnamed Yang said the Dagang Oilfield has been shut down.
“We live in the Binhai New District,” Yang said. “The oilfield has been shut down.”
“Last night, my daughter-in-law told me there was a case [in our area] found via a PCR test.”
Under reporting feared
Anyone wanting to travel to Beijing must now supply a negative COVID-19 test before traveling, and another after they arrive, while residents have been told not to travel outside the city ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday in February.
A Beijing resident surnamed Tang said she believes the authorities aren’t reporting all of the positive tests, Â in a bid to play down the outbreak ahead of the Olympics.
“In Beijing, they were saying the day beforeÂ yesterdayÂ that there was another positive case in a certain community, but they absolutely daren’t report it now, because the Winter Olympics are about to open,” Tang said.
“They daren’t report too many cases these days, if you understand me.”
The fresh outbreaks come as the country gears up for what is usually the largest mass movement of people on the planet, as hundreds of millions crowd trains, planes, buses and highways to get home for the traditional family meal on the eve of the new year.
Complaints continued to filter out of the northern city of Xi’an, which has been under a strict lockdown for nearly three weeks, although the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases fell to just five on Jan. 16.
Official media said the city has now been assessed as a “low-risk area,” and businesses, postal and delivery services and the catering industry are all gradually reopening there.
“We just started backÂ todayÂ after getting a notice from our community committee and a work resumption certificate,” Xi’an convenience store clerk Liu Yan told the state-run Shaanxi Daily newspaper. “Anyone coming here to shop needs to have a negative PCR test and a green code [on the test and trace app].”
“Customers are placing orders via our WeChat group or phone and paying by WeChat Pay and other [remote] methods,” Liu said.
But the paper’s video clip prompted further complaints from Xi’an residents saying that they have yet to be allowed to leave their homes. Other comments said the authorities have given scant consideration to the fate of university students wanting to come home for the holiday period, or to patients still awaiting surgery after having their procedures suspended during the lockdown.
A Xi’an resident surnamed Li said many people now doubt that the authorities can contain these outbreaks.
“A lot of people are wondering whether this can actually be controlled, based on the way it’s currently going,” Li said.
“They imposed such strict measures, including preventing people from going out to buy groceries, and yet the outbreaks still grew that fast,” he said.
China’s National Health Commission reported 223 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the country, 163 of which were locally transmitted, including 80 in Tianjin, 68 in Henan, and nine in Guangdong, including five in Zhuhai and two in Shenzhen.
There were no new deaths.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.