Contact Tracing and the Olympic Games

With the 2022 Olympics wrapping up in Beijing this week, it has been fascinating to learn how China has navigated hosting such a global event during the Covid-19 pandemic. China is known for its strict lockdown policies since the beginning of the pandemic, which have only shifted slightly to host this year’s Winter Olympic Games. 

While listening to an episode of the New York Times’ The Daily podcast, ‘A ‘Zero Covid’ Olympics,’ I was placed in the shoes of a person attending/competing at the Olympics in the “Covid superbubble.” Throughout the pandemic, China has been following a zero-Covid policy, spearheaded by President Xi Jinping. In late 2019, cases of Covid were spreading rapidly, however by the end of March of 2020, China achieved zero cases thanks to Jinping’s zero-Covid policy.

This program initially included snap lockdowns, mass testing, border controls, and contact tracing, but soon evolved to be more technologically advanced. Within the superbubble, one must scan QR codes when entering buildings. Their information is sent to the government in preparation of nearby positive cases in case contact tracing is needed to pinpoint exactly where an infection came from. This morphed into citizens receiving health codes similar to a digital passport, where location data determines Covid risk. To enter a building, one must provide a green health code. If one receives a yellow code, this could have a range of potential meanings: for example, if someone traveled to a city with an outbreak or someone went to a pharmacy and bought medicine applicable for Covid symptoms. If the code is yellow or red, then one must get tested and self-isolate for 7 days. The implementation of this technology by the Chinese government along with strict lockdown procedures has made Covid cases in the country minimal.

For the 2022 Olympics, a giant bubble has essentially been constructed to contain the spread of Covid. Once people  overseas enter the bubble, they stay there until departing China. Local workers such as volunteers, drivers, and cooks all stay within the bubble’s parameters as well – they have no physical contact with their families or the outside world. There are three areas connected by specific taxis, buses, and trains. Robots are  used to carry out tasks such as making and delivering food to reduce human contact.

Could the zero-Covid policies in China be replicable in the United States? This would require citizens to accept government agencies tracking and using personal and sensitive data to dictate their mobility. Are there ethical ways in which the U.S. government can use this data to protect citizens from unprecedented diseases? As the Covid pandemic continues and technology advances, similar circumstances are sure to arise.

Listen to The Daily podcast here.