Xu Xinhua waits in line for an hour every day for a health worker to push a cotton swab down his throat and spin. Each time, he hopes his Covid test will be negative so he can continue to supply food, medicine and flowers to Shanghai residents.
Mr. Xu, 49, is paid hourly by Shansong Express, an intercity courier service, but only when he fulfills orders. “That means you work for an hour without a profit motive,” Mr. Xu said in an interview.
The routine is familiar to hundreds of millions of people as China makes lab testing for Covid a regular part of everyday life. In major cities across the country, even where no cases have been reported, residents must present a negative PCR test to go shopping, ride the subway or bus, or participate in public activities.
China is the last country in the world to try to eradicate Covid, and the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant is challenging its strategy of mass lockdowns and quarantines. The country already uses health code apps to monitor its citizens and detect infections, and is imposing strict lockdowns and centralized quarantines for confirmed cases and close contacts.
Officials hope the regular mass testing will help isolate cases in the community before they lead to bigger outbreaks. But the policies can be expensive and time-consuming, undermining the central government’s efforts to get the economy going.
In Shanghai, just two weeks after the city lifted its two-month lockdown, authorities have placed millions of new barriers to conduct mass testing, sparking protests in some areas. In Beijing, days after the city said it had brought the outbreak under control, the number of cases reached a three-week high on Tuesday. In the eastern district of Chaoyang, where an outbreak was tied to one bar, authorities began testing residents and closing businesses for three days.
Workers say the time it takes to get tested is cutting their pay. Local governments take money from poverty reduction projects to pay for testing. Businesses worry that the requirement will hurt productivity, and economists worry that people will stay at home to avoid the hassle.
Some local officials have tried to scale back testing. Others have recognized the enormous burden that routine testing has placed on citizens. But China’s top leader Xi Jinping has ordered the country to stick “steadfastly” to its infection-wiping strategy, and dozens of officials have been fired for mishandling outbreaks, making any attempt to ease restrictions political risky.
“If you’re a local government official and you’re faced with these competing demands, you’re going to rank them,” said Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think any rational local government official will still have more incentives 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 be tested within 15 minutes’ walk of their residences, small test booths, with holes for gloved hands to poke out and clear throats, appeared in city squares. , shopping centers squares and parks.
Health officials in 57 cities and five of China’s 31 provinces — which cover nearly half of the country’s 1.4 billion people — have begun some sort of normalized testing system, according to a report by Suzhou-based financial firm Soochow Securities.
The approach has fueled public anger in some places. In Shanghai, in recent days, authorities have closed residential complexes or even city blocks for testing, sometimes because only one resident was in the same store or subway as someone who later tested positive.
On Monday night, frustrated residents in the northeastern district of Yangpu clamored and shouted “End the lockdown!” after their compound was closed this weekend, says Jaap Grolleman, a Dutch teacher who lives nearby. More than a dozen police officers stood guard outside a giant wrought-iron gate that was locked, he said.
“People worry about taking the subway or going to the mall,” says Mr Grolleman, who saw his neighbors protest† “You don’t know if someone tests positive before or after you, meaning you’d be quarantined or your whole site locked.”
In Beijing’s Chaoyang district, some residents are busy pushing for more testing and lockdowns. Zoey Zhou, a journalist who lives in the district, said she was concerned that if she missed a test, her health code app would prevent her from entering her neighborhood.
“I don’t think it’s acceptable for the government to tax the population more and tighten surveillance in the name of epidemic prevention,” Ms Zhou said. “Why am I being deprived of the freedom I should have?”
There are signs of China’s pandemic policy rippling through the economy. Fewer people shop, causing retail sales to fall. People are less interested in buying real estate; Real estate sales fell 39 percent in April compared to a year earlier.
Local governments are struggling to pay for all the testing. In Yangquan, a city in northern China, officials said they would build a mass-testing system despite the city’s “serious financial constraints.” In Kaifeng, in the south, officials said they had scraped together $3 million for testing “under very difficult financial conditions.”
Estimates of the total cost of the new testing policy vary, but are in the tens of billions of dollars. If the testing is expanded to small towns, hosting as much as 70 percent of the population, it could cost as much as 1.8 percent of annual economic growth, according to Japanese bank Nomura.
Shanghai has said it will charge residents for any test in August. A single test costs Mr. Xu, the delivery person, about half of what he earns in an hour. His income had already taken a hit during the two-month lockdown in Shanghai, when he had to live in a hotel where he could come and go.
Parts of the government are sounding the alarm about the need to limit the impact of the measures. A Beijing health official warned on Thursday that PCR testing “shouldn’t become the norm.” And some cities have relaxed requirements for how often tests must be taken.
In southern Jiangxi province, where officials have faced wage cuts and tight bonuses for months because the budget is so tight, officials last week decided to halt mass testing in areas with low cases, seeing it as an obstacle to called economic development.
Testing can break a transmission chain before it escalates into a broader outbreak, experts say, but it’s unsustainable in the long run. Other measures, such as increasing vaccinations and securing antiviral drugs, can help a country develop broader immunity and be better prepared for future outbreaks.
But of the 264 million people aged 60 or older in China, only 64 percent have received a booster, a figure that experts say is too low. According to a recent study, a third dose of China’s key Sinovac vaccine is needed to significantly increase protection against serious illness and death.
Some business leaders have pointed to what they see as the short-sightedness of the government’s approach. In a recent meeting with Prime Minister of China Li Keqiang and other leaders from abroad, Jörg Wuttke, China’s chief representative for BASF, the German chemical giant, said he urged the leader to focus on vaccinations rather than testing. It was unfathomable, Mr Wuttke said, told Mr Li that failing to vaccinate the elderly “could take the economy hostage”.
Li YouLiu Yi and Joy Dong research contributed.