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The Winter Olympics are just around the corner … what is life like in Beijing’s ‘closed loop’ bubble?

Our Taiwan correspondent, Helen Davidson, speaks to those affected by Beijing’s tough zero Covid strategy:

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 might 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.

people in masks pushing trolleys

In this photo released by China’s Xinhua news agency, members of the Chinese Winter Olympics team arrive at the team processing centre in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province. Photograph: Xiong Qi/AP

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.”

Throughout the pandemic, China’s government has maintained with large success a “zero Covid” strategy, assisted by strict border controls. 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 11,000 foreign athletes, officials, employees and guests, doesn’t spark a wider outbreak.

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, snowmobile, and sledding events, and the third is way out in Zhangjiakou, 200km to the north-west in Hebei province, for the Nordic biathlon, freestyle skiing and snowboarding events.