Most access to a major city adjacent to Beijing was suspended Thursday as China tried to contain an outbreak of the highly contagious omicron variant, which poses a test to its “zero-tolerance” COVID-19 policy and its ability to successfully host the Winter Olympics.
Tianjin, a port and manufacturing centre with 14 million people, is one of a half-dozen cities where the government is imposing lockdowns and other restrictions as part of a policy that aims to track down every virus case. But the outbreak in a city so close to the Olympic host is particularly worrying.
Throughout the pandemic, authorities have been especially protective of Beijing since it is the seat of government and home to senior politicians. With the Games opening there in just over three weeks and China’s national pride on the line, the stakes are even higher now.
On Thursday, Tianjin suspended train, taxi, bus and ride-hailing services to other cities. Flights and high-speed train services were cancelled earlier and highways closed.
People leaving the city were required to present negative virus tests and receive special permission.
Elsewhere, more than 20 million people under lockdown in China, including in the western city of Xi’an. Some are barred from leaving their homes.
That’s all part of the sweeping restrictions on movement China has repeatedly imposed since early 2020. It started with the then-unprecedented step of sealing off 11 million people in the central city Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, and other parts of surrounding Hubei province.
Along with mass testing and digital surveillance of people’s movements, those measures have kept the virus from spreading into a full-fledged national outbreak so far. The country’s vaccination rate now also tops 85%.
Other countries that tried a similar zero-tolerance approach have abandoned it, deciding instead to try to live with the virus, while mitigating its worst effects.