For its next Zero Covid chapter, China turns to mass testing

For an hour every day, Xu Xinhua waits in line for a health worker to stick a swab down her throat and spin it around. Each time, he hopes that his covid test will be negative so that he can continue to deliver food, medicine and flowers to Shanghai residents.

Shansong Express, an intercity courier service, pays Mr. Xu, 49, by the hour, but only when he is fulfilling orders. “That means you work an hour without earning,” Xu said in an interview.

The routine is familiar to hundreds of millions of people, as China makes lab tests for Covid a permanent feature of daily life. In the main cities of the country, even where there are no reported cases, residents must present a negative PCR test to go shopping, ride the subway or bus, or participate in public activities.

China is the latest country in the world trying to eliminate Covid, and the spread of Omicron’s highly contagious variant is challenging its strategy of mass lockdowns and quarantines. The country already uses health code apps to monitor its citizens and track infections, and imposes strict lockdowns and centralized quarantines for confirmed cases and close contacts.

Officials hope regular mass testing will help isolate cases in the community before they escalate into larger outbreaks. But the policy can be costly and time consuming, undermining the central government’s efforts to revive the economy.

In Shanghai, just two weeks after the city lifted its two-month lockdown, authorities have placed millions under new lockdowns for mass testing, sparking protests in some areas. In Beijing, days after the city said it had brought an outbreak under control, cases hit a three-week high on Tuesday. In the eastern district of Chaoyang, where an outbreak was linked to a bar, authorities began testing residents for three days and closed businesses.

Workers say the time required to get tested is cutting into their pay. Local governments are taking money from poverty relief projects to pay for tests. Businesses worry that the requirement will hurt productivity and economists worry that people will stay home to avoid the hassle.

Some local officials have tried to cut back on testing. Others have acknowledged the enormous burden that routine testing has placed on citizens. But China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has ordered the country to adhere “firmly” to the strategy of eradicating infections, and dozens of officials have been fired for mismanaging outbreaks, making any efforts to relax restrictions is politically risky.

“When you’re a local government official and you’re faced with these competing demands, you sort through them,” said Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think any rational local government official will still have more incentive to enthusiastically pursue zero covid than to take a more flexible approach.”

After a deputy prime minister, Sun Chunlan, ordered cities to ensure residents can get tested within a 15-minute walk of where they live, testing booths, with holes for hands, have appeared in small town squares. gloves protrude and swabs are taken from the throat. squares and parks.

Health officials in 57 cities and five of China’s 31 provinces, covering nearly half of the country’s 1.4 billion people, have started some sort of standardized testing system, according to a report by the China-based financial firm. Suzhou Soochow Securities.

The approach has fueled public anger in some places. In Shanghai, authorities have forced residential complexes or even city blocks to close for testing in recent days, sometimes because only one resident was in the same store or subway car as someone who later tested positive.

On Monday night, frustrated residents in the city’s northeast Yangpu district banged on pots and shouted “End the lockdown!” after his compound was closed for the weekend, said Jaap Grolleman, a Dutch teacher who lives in the neighborhood. More than a dozen police officers stood guard outside a giant wrought-iron gate that was locked, he said.

“People are worried about taking the subway or going to the mall,” said Grolleman, who he saw his neighbors protesting. “You don’t know if someone before or after you tests positive, which means you would be dragged into quarantine or your entire complex would be shut down.”

In Beijing’s Chaoyang district, some residents are angry about more tests and lockdowns. Zoey Zhou, a journalist who lives in the district, said she was worried that if she skipped a test, her health code app would prevent her from entering her neighborhood.

“I don’t think it’s acceptable for the government to put more burden on the public and increase vigilance in the name of epidemic prevention,” said Ms. Zhou. “Why am I being deprived of the freedom that I should have?”

There are signs of how China’s pandemic policies are affecting the economy. Fewer people are shopping, which reduces retail sales. People are less interested in buying property; real estate sales fell 39 percent in April compared to a year earlier.

Local governments are struggling to pay for all the tests. In Yangquan, a city in northern China, officials said they would build a mass testing system despite “severe financial constraints” in the city. In Kaifeng, to the south, officials said they had raised $3 million to conduct tests “under very difficult financial circumstances.”

Estimates of the total cost of the new testing policy vary, but are in the tens of billions of dollars. If the tests spread to small cities, capturing up to 70 percent of the population, it could cost up to 1.8 percent of annual economic growth, according to Japan’s Nomura bank.

Shanghai has said that in August it will start charging residents for each test. A single test will cost Mr. Xu, the delivery man, about half of what he earns in an hour. His income had already been affected during Shanghai’s two-month lockdown when he had to live in a hotel that allowed him to come and go.

Parts of the government are sounding the alarm about the need to limit the impact the measures are having. A Beijing health official warned Thursday that PCR tests “should not become the norm.” And some cities have relaxed requirements on how often tests must be done.

In the southern province of Jiangxi, where officials have faced pay cuts and bonus restrictions for months because the budget is so tight, officials last week decided to stop mass testing in areas with few cases, citing this as an obstacle to economic development. .

Testing can break a chain of transmission before it turns into a broader outbreak, experts say, but it’s unsustainable in the long term. Other measures, such as increasing vaccinations and securing antiviral drugs, could help a country build broader immunity and be better prepared for future outbreaks.

But of the 264 million Chinese aged 60 and older, only 64 percent have received a booster, a figure experts say is far too low. A third dose of China’s leading Sinovac vaccine is needed to significantly increase protection against serious illness and death, according to a new study.

Some business leaders have pointed to what they see as the shortsightedness of the government’s approach. In a recent meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and other foreign business leaders, Jörg Wuttke, China’s chief representative for BASF, the German chemical giant, he said he urged the leader to focus on vaccines rather than testing. Wuttke said he told Mr. Li that it was unfathomable how not vaccinating the elderly “can hold the economy hostage.”

li you Y Joy Dong contributed research.

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