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China pushes for regular mass testing in ‘zero-COVID’ pursuit

A medical worker took a swab sample from a resident to be tested for COVID-19 at a swab collection site in China. Amid public opposition to current coronavirus restrictions, Chinese government has continued to impress upon its people the importance of testing.AFP via Getty Images

Chinese cities and provinces have turned to regular mass coronavirus testing, even in the absence of a local COVID-19 outbreak, raising concerns about the economic toll.

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

The “zero COVID” approach to contain the highly infectious Omicron variant risks increasing economic stress and further irking a population that has been protesting the country’s strict lockdowns. Even so, officials are sticking with it. The strategy has appeared repeatedly in official announcements and state media in recent weeks.

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In early May, Sun Chunlan, a Chinese vice premier, said that residents of large cities should be able to get PCR tests within a 15-minute walk of their homes. By mid-May, nearly 10,000 booths had been set up across Shanghai. But not all local governments can afford to do what China’s wealthiest city does.

Regular mass testing in China’s larger and more developed cities, which would comprise around 500 million people, could cost over 1.7 trillion yuan, or $255 billion, a year, or equal to about 1.5 percent of the county’s gross domestic product in 2021, according to an estimate by Soochow Securities economists in early May. The report spread through Chinese social media and was later censored.

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

The testing should be focused on provincial capitals that are at high risk of importing infections and in cities with a population of at least 10 million, Guo Yanhong, a National Health Commission official, said at a Monday news briefing. Testing frequency should depend on the local situation, she said.

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Still, five provinces and numerous cities aside from major metropolises like Shanghai and Beijing have said they are exploring regular PCR testing and other measures.

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

On social media, there has been no shortage of mockery of the new efforts. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, many users suggested that coronavirus testing could juice economic growth, which has dropped under lockdowns and travel bans.

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

“Please be polite and stop slandering nucleic acid tests by splashing dirty water,” Hu said.