China pushes for regular mass COVID testing

Chinese cities and provinces have resorted to regular mass testing for coronavirus, even in the absence of a local outbreak of Covid-19, raising concerns about the economic cost.

The 99 million residents of the central province of Henan will be required to take PCR tests every other day by June. In the eastern province of Zhejiang, drivers are screened at expressway exits before they can enter. Beijing, which has a small outbreak, is among the cities that now require a test to get on the subway or enter any public place.

The “covid zero” approach to containing the highly infectious Omicron variant risks increasing economic stress and further upsetting a population that has been protesting the country’s strict lockdowns. Still, officials remain firm. The strategy has repeatedly appeared in official statements and state media in recent weeks.

In early May, Sun Chunlan, Chinese Vice Premier, said that residents of big cities should be able to take PCR tests within a 15-minute walk from their homes. By mid-May, nearly 10,000 stalls had been set up in Shanghai. But not all local governments can afford to do what China’s richest city does.

Regular mass testing in China’s largest and most developed cities, comprising around 500 million people, could cost more than 1.7 trillion yuan, or $255 billion, a year, or equivalent to about 1, 5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2021, according to an estimate by economists at Soochow Securities in early May. The report spread through Chinese social media and was later censored.

A health official said testing would not have to be as extensive everywhere.

Testing should focus on provincial capitals that are at high risk of importing infections and cities with a population of at least 10 million, Guo Yanhong, an official with the National Health Commission, told a news conference on Monday. The frequency of testing should depend on the local situation, he said.

Still, five provinces and numerous cities in addition to major metropolises such as Shanghai and Beijing have said they are exploring regular PCR tests and other measures.

In the less prosperous central provinces, strict containment and prevention measures have already taken their toll. Local governments in Sichuan and Anhui have in recent weeks called for public donations to ease strains on supplies of medical equipment.

On social media, there has been no shortage of mockery of the new endeavors. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, many users suggested that Covid testing could boost economic growth, which has slowed due to lockdowns and travel bans.

In response, Hu Xijin, a former editor of the Communist Party tabloid Global Times, praised Henan’s testing plan on Monday. He also repeated the official line that living with the virus would never work in China and that regular PCR tests were the country’s best option.

“Be courteous and stop smearing nucleic acid tests by splashing dirty water,” Mr Hu said.

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