BEIJING – For the thousands of athletes, journalists and others descending on Beijing for the Winter Olympics, China’s strict pandemic measures are creating a surreal and at times anxious experience.
China is isolating everyone coming from abroad from any contact with the general public for the duration of the Games, which open next week. That means being taken from the Beijing airport in special vehicles to a hotel surrounded by temporary barricades that keep participants in and the public out.
“I know the only experience of Beijing I’m going to experience is the Beijing I will see out of my bus window and my hotel window,” said Associated Press photo editor Yirmiyan Arthur, who arrived this week. “I’m not really going to experience China, I’m just going to experience the Olympics within the bubble.”
The experiences of AP journalists who have arrived or are preparing to depart offers a glimpse into life inside the bubble.
Photographer Jae Hong said he had been warned about the bubble but seeing it in effect in Beijing was still a shock. He described seeing passengers met by workers in white, full-body protective gear. Everyone is tested for COVID-19 at the airport before being transported to their barricaded hotels, the entrances protected by round-the-clock guards.
Organizers want to keep any infections from getting out of the bubble, as well as spreading within the bubble, a heightened concern with the easily transmissible omicron variant. Everyone is tested daily — failing to get tested the previous evening means being stuck in your hotel the next day.
So far, organizers said Thursday there have been 129 positive tests among the 4,046 people who have arrived for the Games. Of those, two are either athletes or team officials. The rest are other participants such as the media. Those who test positive are taken to a hospital if they have symptoms or a quarantine hotel if they do not.
Even getting to China can be worrying, requiring multiple negative COVID-19 tests entered into an app that displays your health status. That kept Arthur on edge during her journey from New Delhi to Beijing via Tokyo. A colleague who had already arrived in Beijing helped her download the app. Then she saw the health workers in biohazard suits after she got off the plane.
“In the airport it’s a bit scary, it’s almost like a hospital that was treating COVID patients in the second wave,” she said, referring to India’s devastating surge in March 2021.
Tokyo also had strict rules for the Summer Olympics last year, but participants were allowed outside of the bubble after two weeks.
AP video journalist Johnson Lai, who has yet to depart for the Olympics, is facing stress because China has no formal relations with Taiwan, his self-governing homeland that Beijing claims as its own territory.
That meant he was unable to complete the form in the Olympics app to get a code, which requires a test conducted at a China-approved hospital. “There’s a lot of uncertain matters that we can’t control," he said.
Outside the bubble, Beijing authorities locked down more neighborhoods in the city's Fengtai district on Thursday as they try to snuff out a delta variant outbreak that has infected about 70 people.
China has a “zero tolerance” policy under which it quickly locks down affected areas and conducts mass testing of residents to find infections and isolate them. All 2 million residents of Fengtai are undergoing a third round of testing since last weekend.
The Beijing outbreak has spread to neighboring provinces. After four cases were reported in the city of Langfang, just south of Beijing in Hebei province, authorities suspended travel between the cities to try to prevent further spread.
Arthur, the photo editor, could see other passengers at the airport from a bus, a view of people outside the Olympics bubble. “And you see ... oh, there’s life out there," she said, "and you’re like, oh my God, it’s so near and yet so far.”