Before Zhang Hua goes down for breakfast, he puts on a mask and rubber gloves. He leaves his hotel room and walks through halls while keeping a safe distance from others. Then he boards a specially commissioned bus driven along dedicated lanes to his job assisting foreign broadcasters preparing for the Winter Olympics.

In the media centre he takes his daily Covid test, and he could eat a meal delivered by a robot. Depending on where he’s staying, Zhang may be allowed to visit his hotel gym later, or go to another hotel’s restaurant, but otherwise this is the only journey he can take.

This is life inside one of the “closed loop” bubbles set up by China in an attempt to keep the Winter Olympics, which are due to begin on 4 February, Covid-free. Zhang, who used a pseudonym, has been inside a bubble since 21 January.

“With the buses, going out is easy,” he told the Guardian. “It [the loop] doesn’t affect how we work much but it affects our lives, especially meals, and life is not as free as outside the loop.”

Russian lugers arriving at Beijing airport
Russian lugers arriving at Beijing airport. Photograph: Sergei Bobylev/Tass

Throughout the pandemic, China’s government has maintained, with large success, a “zero-Covid” strategy, assisted by strict border controls.

As recently as a few months ago, weeks would go by with no community cases, and outbreaks were swiftly brought under control. But then Omicron arrived.

Case numbers are low relative to the rest of the world but infections have been found in multiple provinces and cities, including Beijing. The closed loop system is now tasked not only with keeping the Games as Covid-free as possible but also ensuring that the influx of about 11,000 foreign athletes, officials, employees and guests does not spark a wider outbreak 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 Beijing’s city centre and the venues for ice competitions and the opening and closing ceremonies. The second is the suburban Yanqing site for Alpine skiing and sledding events, and the third is way out in Zhangjiakou, 200km (125 miles) to the north-west in Hebei province, for the Nordic biathlon, freestyle skiing and snowboarding events.

Security guards at the media centre fence
Security guards at the media centre fence.
Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Each holds a number of stadiums and venues, convention centres, and dozens of designated hotels, and are linked by high-speed rail with designated loop carriages, and highways with dedicated loop lanes. Other drivers who cross into these lanes face fines, and people have been warned against rushing to assist if a loop vehicle has a crash.

On arrival

The process for foreign participants starts long before they get to Beijing. For two weeks before departure they are required to monitor and upload their temperature and other information to a health app every day.

After receiving two negative Covid tests within 24 hours, they will get on a dedicated plane. When they disembark in Beijing they will be met by workers in biohazard suits.

“In the airport it’s a bit scary, it’s almost like a hospital that was treating Covid patients in the second wave,” one journalist told Associated Press.

Participants will go through dedicated gates and receive their third test, before one of about 4,000 special vehicles takes them to their bubble, and a hotel barricaded from the public.

They will be policed 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 have to quarantine again before they can go home. In at least one venue, employees are wearing underarm thermometers that sound an alarm if their temperature rises too high.

What if someone tests positive?

A participant who tests positive goes to an isolation centre for quarantine, or hospital if they are sick. It might start with a midnight knock on the door.

The isolation rooms are about 25 sq metres and have an openable window. People staying in the rooms will get three meals a day and free wifi, according to the Games playbook, and they will be there for at least 10 days. If they are not showing symptoms and tests show a low viral load for three consecutive days, they can rejoin the closed loop under the measures for close contacts.

People found to be close contacts and whose jobs can be done by someone else must go to the isolation centre 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 must isolate in their room, travel to competitions alone, train in their room or an isolated space, and be tested every day, including six hours before their event. So far just a few athletes have tested positive since arriving in Beijing. Some, such as the US bobsledder Josh Williamson, caught Covid while still at home. Williamson is hoping to recover and test negative in time to get to Beijing for his team’s event on 15 February.

“Isn’t it ironic,” he said recently, “that after four years of hard work, all there is to do is sit, rest, recover and have faith? Things I struggle to do the most.”

After the Games

Tokyo’s Summer Olympics were also run under extraordinary pandemic measures, but foreigners were allowed to travel around the city after two weeks. At the end of Beijing’s Games everyone will be sent straight back home on a plane without detours.

For some of the visiting foreigners the closed loop is a frustrating experience – so close and yet so far from life outside. Zhang says he is happy about the measures and supports China’s effort in combating Covid, but he is worried about the added complexities and influx of people.

Outbreaks and lockdowns are still happening around the country. Beijing has shown no sign of changing its zero-Covid strategy and is banking its international and domestic reputation on the closed loop system and staging a successful, outbreak-free Olympics.

Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu

Source: The Guardian