China is pushing for regular mass Covid testing

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 fallout.

The 99 million residents of central Henan province will have to take PCR tests every other day through June. In the eastern province of Zhejiang, drivers are tested at highway exits before they are allowed to enter. Beijing, which has a small outbreak, is among cities that now require a test to board the subway or enter any public place.

The “zero Covid” approach to containing the highly contagious Omicron variant risks increasing economic stress and further angering a population who have been protesting the country’s strict lockdowns. Nevertheless, the officials are sticking to it. The strategy has appeared repeatedly in official statements and state media in recent weeks.

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

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

A health official said testing doesn’t need to be as extensive everywhere.

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

Still, five provinces and numerous cities, alongside major metropolitan cities like Shanghai and Beijing, have said they are considering regular PCR testing and other measures.

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

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

In response, Hu Xijin, the former editor of the Communist Party tabloid Global Times, on Monday praised Henan’s test plan. He also reiterated 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,” Mr. Hu said.

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