Can China stop omicron from hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics?
China’s zero Covid containment and quarantine policy is so strict that the country’s president, Xi Jinping, has not left the country for about two years. Now that the highly transmissible variant of omicron has been reported in China, what will it mean for the Olympics – and for us?
One thing is certain: with the Beijing Olympics just over a month away and the politically important National Congress of the Communist Party of China to be held in the fall, the severe localized closures that have defined China’s response to the pandemic is likely to persist through 2022, possibly even longer.
China’s policy is fundamentally the opposite of how the United States is trying to cope with the virus. Any positive case is quarantined. Contact tracing, made possible by surveillance technology and artificial intelligence, can detect an outbreak: buildings, city blocks or even entire neighborhoods are sealed when a case is reported. “It’s pretty brutal. It’s a blunt tool, ”said Megan Greene, an economist at the Kroll Institute. Yet, as a result of this policy, China has had many, many fewer deaths.
But zero Covid is going to be much more difficult to implement with a more transmissible variant, and the lower effectiveness of Chinese vaccines against the variants suggests that this policy will only get tougher. (To be fair, two doses of mRNA vaccines aren’t very effective at preventing omicron infection, according to early studies, although they still offer strong protection against serious illness.)
“On the surface, [the spread of the new variant] seems to have justified this approach, ”said public health expert Yanzhong Huang of Seton Hall University. “They seem confident in the existing approach and the strict implementation. And that existing approach has had an effect on markets and supply chains, and now it’s likely to do it again.
So far, only a few cases of omicron have emerged in China. An infected person in a city south on the border with Vietnam has caused the containment of 200,000 people and the closure of the city of 13 million people, according to the Washington Post. As the Lunar New Year approaches, experts say even more preventative measures, such as travel bans, could follow.
The country’s leaders will now face a major public health conundrum as the omicron variant collides with the Beijing Olympics. The February games were going to be a time to celebrate China on the world stage, and now the prospect of athletes from around the world will highlight what many see as a harsh lockdown policy, a policy much more intense than Le Japan last summer. “I think the omicron coinciding with the Olympics keeps a lot of people from sleeping at night in Beijing,” former Asia Society diplomat Daniel Russel said.
“Strong as the weakest link”
Over the past two years, with some products missing from our favorite stores and crucial items like N95 masks and Covid-19 tests sometimes in short supply, we’ve all learned about the fragility of the supply chain. Electronics, cars and consumer products have been very sensitive to these types of disruptions.
Many shortages are linked to blockages in China: a single case can close a giant port. But China is so big that many cases of blockades at the local level have gone under the media’s radar, notes economist George Magnus of the University of Oxford. “Closures have occurred consistently without global consequences. A small town of a million amid the butterfly-wing effects of the country is obviously quite small, but a large warehouse in a coastal province of China will be observed and commented on, ”Magnus said.
The good news is that, despite some shortages, supply chains have proven to be mostly resilient and large retailers have adapted. “It’s amazing how well the supply chains have held up,” said David Dollar, senior researcher at the Brookings Institution think tank. “China is big enough to show that it can lock down a particular port for coronavirus reasons, but it has 20 other ports.”
Experts are divided on how consumers will experience the effect of omicron. Even localized closures at Chinese manufacturers, ports or hubs could have an impact, warned Per Hong, a supply chain expert at consulting firm Kearney. “The chain is only strong as its weakest link, and when it comes to the global supply chain, there are weaknesses everywhere,” Hong said.
With demand on the rise in the United States – after two years of isolation, everyone seems to be spending right now – there will be shortages, and it’s very difficult to predict what will be missing in the months to come. Supply chain disruptions can take up to six months to be felt by consumers.
China’s economy was already slowing due to the bursting of the Chinese real estate bubble and the crackdown on tech companies, like e-commerce giant Alibaba. Now, with omicron entering the mix, economists are warning of slower growth in China, which will also have effects on the US economy. “China got us out of the global recession because it has so much demand globally. This time around, we know we can’t count on China to get us through because they are slowing down, ”said Greene, the Kroll Institute economist.
Watch the Olympics
China may be trying to control the weather to rid cities of smog and make skies blue for the Olympics. Millions of people will watch from a distance, with stadiums without spectators as a backdrop. But more important than how Beijing projects into the Olympics is how the zero Covid policy affects China’s place in the world.
What experts call draconian policies are likely to stay in place after the Olympics and until the Party Congress in the fall, perhaps long after.
While the economic ripple effects are worrying for China and the world, a bigger problem could be China’s isolation. “If the rest of the world learned to live with Covid, will China be the only country to ban conferences, international travel and the students who will go there?” They are going to pay a high price to take this route, ”Dollar said.
The lack of “real channels of communication” between officials, businessmen and students will exacerbate US-China relations, according to Russel. And that could lead to China being much more socially distant. “The more extreme and generally the most paranoid actors of the two systems have the final say,” Russel said. “The insulation was removed from the wires of the complicated relationship and the wires were exposed. It would be very easy for a crossed wire to bypass the relationship.
For analysts like Gabriel Wildau of consulting firm Teneo, that means he hasn’t visited China since 2019. Neither have most of his friends or colleagues. “I’m worried about the long term impact,” he said. “The human relationships formed are really important for the American-Chinese relationship. “