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The Beijing Winter Olympics officially begin Friday. The Games are usually a celebration of sport and co-existence, but this year, the U.S. and some allied governments are boycotting diplomatically and accusing China of human rights abuses. Nick Schifrin reports on an Olympics in the era of COVID and how measures designed to keep athletes safe are also silencing Beijing’s critics.
The Beijing Winter Olympics officially begin today, the second Games during the pandemic and hosted by the country where coronavirus originated.
China's hard-line policy on containing the virus has included vast lockdowns of millions and severe restrictions for its citizens.
Nick Schifrin reports on an Olympics in the era of COVID and how measures designed to keep athletes safe are also silencing Beijing's critics.
For the 2022 Winter Games, the Olympic mascot might just be a man in a hazmat suit. Beijing Airport staff greet all athletes, covered head to toe and administer athletes' third COVID test in five days before they can even arrive at the ultimate sporting test.
Joanne Firesteel Reid, Olympic Athlete:
It's called the closed loop, and we really actually do hope it's fully closed.
Joanne Firesteel Reid and Deedra Irwin are biathletes, a combination of cross-country skiing and shooting. Before they left, they embraced China's COVID restrictions known as the closed loop.
They sent us videos of their welcome wagon, fully space-suited, a police-escorted bus ride to their hotel, and finally seeing the slopes inside the Olympic bubble, where it all felt worth it.
Deera Irwin, Olympic Athlete:
We're totally OK with getting the really obnoxious PCR tests that hurt our brains for a whole day.
obviously, police escorts are a little different, but they're trying to keep us safe, and they're trying to keep us healthy, and that's all we can ask for.
Already, they have spent nearly three months isolated from their families. and within their team bubble, Reid and Irwin have their own mini-bubble.
Joanne Firesteel Reid:
The only person that we can take our mask off in front of when we're indoors is our mini-bubble, so that would be my roommate, Deedra.
We really want to wanted to close our bubble, and make sure absolutely no chance of getting COVID.
The Olympics' closed bubble means wire fences separate events and the athletes' village from the rest of the city.
Inside the loop, athletes can check out anything they like, but they can never leave. A Canadian journalist posted a photo from inside her room of packing tape blocking her exit for 30 minutes, until her airport test came back negative. And anyone who tests positive is immediately quarantined.
Kim Meylemans, Olympic Athlete:
I'm not sure I can handle 14 more days
Belgian skeleton athlete Kim Meylemans said she her second test came back negative, but was denied permission to isolate in the athletes' village.
We are not sure I will ever be allowed to return to the village. And, obviously, this is very hard for me.
After the video, authorities relented, and defend their procedures as necessary.
Zhao Weidong, Spokesperson, Beijing Winter Olympics Organizing Committee (through translator):
We have been making effective measures, and everything is under control. Without safe Games, there would be no Games.
It's not only inside the Games. The country maintains one of the world's strictest testing schemes and lockdowns. Just last month, because of a few hundred cases, 20 million Chinese were ordered to stay in their homes.
Yanzhong Huang, Council on Foreign Relations: They simply do not want to give up what they already have achieved.
Yanzhong Huang is the Council on Foreign Relations' senior fellow for global health. He says China sticks to the zero COVID policy not only because it's kept cases relatively low, but also for politics.
They use that to showcase the superiority of the — its political system, the Chinese model. And if they give up, that's tantamount to admitting that they have failed, right, and their system is no better than the U.S.
But the system requires harsh lockdowns. Last month in Xi'An, a city of 13 million in Central China, this woman was refused care for two hours. She was eight months pregnant, and miscarried.
In another video, a woman says her father had a heart attack and died when he was blocked from all of the city's hospitals. And anyone infected, or even deemed a close contact, was forcibly bused to quarantine centers far from the city center.
After Xi'An, with — thanks to the social media, all these reports about all this dark side of the zero COVID strategy, now people, like, increasingly feel this is, like, excessive.
And China used its COVID controls to further restrict. For nearly two years, Chinese have needed green codes on health tracking apps to travel. Yellow or red means you can't travel.
In Beijing, the app tracks everyone's movements. Authorities say it prevents outbreaks. But over a secure messaging app from Beijing, human rights lawyer Wang Yu told us it's used to control critics of the Communist Party.
Wang Yu, Human Rights Lawyer (through translator):
From October to December, during that period of time, I was unable to apply for a health declaration, even though I didn't go to any high-risk areas.
Wang represents persecuted minorities and government critics. In 2015, she was the first of more than 200 activists and lawyers arrested in what became known as the 709 Crackdown.
She spent more than a year in detention.
Do you think Beijing is manipulating the COVID app in order to prevent you from traveling because of the nature of your work?
Wang Yu (through translator):
When I encounter restrictions, I ask if there is any legal basis for these restrictions. They immediately say, because you asked so many questions, we will change the color of your health code to yellow or red.
This is how they threaten and act against you. Using the codes is actually how they manipulate and control.
The government has long controlled Wang and other critics' movements. But, under COVID, it's gotten worse.
Because of the pandemic, people face even more restrictions on their liberty. Even if most people do not agree with the lockdowns, they do not dare say so. You should all know, no one has freedom of speech. If you say something against government policy, you will be suppressed or persecuted.
For athletes who've been training all their lives, today is a dream come true. but some of the steps that Beijing is taking to keep them safe from COVID are also used to keep its Beijing's critics silent.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.
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