TAIPEI - The Chinese city of Tianjin ordered a second round of COVID-19 testing for all of its 14 million residents on Wednesday after an initial screening of the population found 97 positive cases. The port city is about 100 kilometers southeast of the Winter Olympics host city of Beijing.
Authorities locked down several of the port city's contaminated districts as epidemiologists warned that the spread might have begun earlier than detected in last week's screening. Tianjin authorities began tightening anti-virus and travel measures on January 9, fearing a prolonged outbreak.
Analysts who spoke with VOA Mandarin said the Chinese government finds Tianjin's new cases particularly alarming due to the city's proximity to Beijing, the host city for the 24th Winter Olympics, scheduled to open February 4 and run through February 20. It takes less than 30 minutes to travel between the two cities by high-speed rail.
Health experts said the rigid disease control lockdowns will be unsustainable as the more contagious variant omicron spreads across the country, which has adopted a zero-tolerance policy to fight the deadly coronavirus first detected in humans in China in late 2019.
"With omicron, there's a high proportion of asymptomatic cases, so I believe the number of confirmed cases will keep increasing in the next few days," said Twu Shiing-jer, former minister of Taiwan's Department of Health and chairman of the Development Center for Biotechnology in Taipei.
"There's a high probability that omicron will be brought to the Olympic Village in Beijing, since all the food and other logistic supplies will be transported into the venue from other cities," he added.
Tianjin is the latest city placed under strict controls by Chinese authorities eager to contain COVID-19 outbreaks. Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province in central China and until now perhaps best known as the home of thousands of ancient terra cotta warriors, is locked down, as are Anyang and Yuzhou, in China's central Henan province.
Huang Chun, an official with the Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, said in a briefing on January 11 that unless there are large-scale outbreaks in the competition zones, "we don't plan to adjust the COVID-19 control measures yet."
He said that judging from the current situation, there's no need to impose a lockdown in Beijing.
Tianjin's "soft lockdown"
Tianjin reported 33 domestically transmitted coronavirus infections with confirmed symptoms on Tuesday, up from 10 on Monday, according to national data, which did not specify how many of the infections were omicron.
For now, most of the cases were found in the southeast area of Tianjin.
City officials ordered a half-day off for all employees and other institutions on Wednesday and required all residents to stay home unless they have pressing needs, such as health workers conducting the second round of mass testing, according to Reuters.
In the meantime, authorities have suspended most of the transportation services between Tianjin and other cities. People who want to leave Tianjin must show a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of travel as well as approval for travel from their employer or local government offices.
VOA Mandarin spoke to several Tianjin residents on January 11 and most said their day-to-day routines remain little affected by the lockdown.
Ms. Wu, 69, who asked that her full name not be used so she would not attract official attention, said she returned to Tianjin from Beijing on December 23. Since she lives far from the contaminated districts, she said she can still go out to get groceries.
"I'm not worried. I have enough food stocked at home, I made sure to purchase all necessities in advance, and everyone has got two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, including my 6-year-old grandson," she told VOA Mandarin.
She said she hadn't noticed any food shortages, even though the supermarket was busier than usual on Sunday.
Tianjin resident Mr. Sun, 70, said that other than venturing out for nucleic acid tests, he's stayed home watching TV for the past two days. Mr. Sun requested that VOA Mandarin not use his full name for fear of attracting official attention as well.
Li Wenbo, an assistant professor of economics at Tianjin University in China, told VOA Mandarin that he expects the new wave of the COVID-19 variant will have a limited impact on Tianjin's economy.
"The authorities have taken swift actions. All schools, from kindergarten to universities, suspended classes immediately. Taking my school for example, final exams have been pushed until the start of the next semester, and all faculties are working from home now," he told VOA Mandarin.
Li said that while there's enough food, some of the city's sectors, such as restaurants and entertainment, will likely take a hit from the latest outbreak
Li said he believes that China's zero-tolerance policy explains why the economy is relatively normal. "Since China has been keeping COVID numbers low for two years, it doesn't have to choose between people's health and economic activities like developed countries in Europe and America."
Twu, Taiwan's former minister of health, is less optimistic. He argued that since omicron is one of the most contagious pathogens health workers have seen, it will be impossible for China to maintain the zero-tolerance policy.
'It's exceptionally difficult to completely contain the virus, especially for omicron. First, it's highly contagious. Second, there will be so many asymptomatic cases compared to previous variants," Twu told VOA Mandarin.
Even if the Beijing Olympics take place in a "closed loop," he continued, there will be so much movement of people and goods to and from the Olympic sites "that some of the spread is almost inevitable."
"Therefore, there are only two situations if China were to insist on a zero-tolerance policy," Twu said. "One is to 'pretend' there are no cases, and the other is to be so strict with pandemic control measures, to the point that it cancels the Winter Olympic Games."