Viruses test new normal as China adheres to ‘zero-COVID’

BEIJING — Thousands of COVID-19 testing sites have appeared on sidewalks in Beijing and other Chinese cities in the latest twist on the country’s “zero-COVID” strategy.

Lines form every day, rain or shine, even though the spread of the virus has largely stopped. Some people have to go to work. Others want to shop. Everyone is effectively forced to get tested by showing a negative test result to enter office buildings, shopping malls and other public places.

Liu Lele, who works for a live-streaming company, doesn’t mind being tested regularly, but said daytime operating hours don’t always fit his schedule.

“Sometimes I get held up at work,” he said after completing a test near Beijing’s historic Bell and Drum Towers on Thursday. “I wish there were locations that were open 24 hours a day or didn’t close until 7 or 8 p.m.”

Regular testing of residents is becoming the new normal in many parts of China as the ruling Communist Party steadfastly adheres to a “zero-COVID” approach that is increasingly at odds with the rest of the world.

Major cities have been told to set up testing stations within 15 minutes’ walk for all residents. Beijing and Shanghai alone have each fielded 10,000 or more. Some consist of folding tables and chairs under a temporary canopy. Others are enclosed square booths from which gloved workers reach through openings to take a quick throat swab from the next person in line.

Many cities, including Beijing, require a negative test result within the last three days to enter a public place or to take the bus or subway. Some made it a week or 10 days. The tests are free, and the result appears on the person’s smartphone health app about 12 hours later.

“We should do that,” said Beijing retiree Wang Shiyuan, who is tested every three days in case he needs to go to the supermarket or take a bus. “Only if everyone adheres to the requirements can we reduce the risk of transmission.”

The move follows a recent outbreak in Shanghai that spread so widely that authorities locked down the entire city for two months to try to end it, trapping millions of people and dealing a blow to the economy.

China largely kept the virus in check for a year and a half by sealing off buildings and neighborhoods and quarantining infected people, but the fast-spreading Omicron variant proved harder to stop. More than 580 people died in Shanghai — a large number in a country that had reported just a handful of deaths after an initial deadly outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020.

Guo Yanhong, an official with the National Health Commission, said testing has become more important because Omicron is both more contagious and spread by people with no symptoms.

“We must stick to the strategy of expanding prevention based on nucleic acid testing in order to control the epidemic earlier and faster,” she told a news conference on Thursday.

Andy Chen, a senior analyst at consulting firm Trivium China, said the increase in testing sites is in response to the failure of existing measures to control Omicron in Shanghai, although officials have not specifically said so.

Authorities have decided that early detection is needed to control omicron outbreaks without extreme measures causing major economic disruption.

“The regular testing requirements are designed to enhance the zero-COVID strategy,” Chen said in an email response. “The end goal is to keep the virus under control while avoiding another lockdown like in Shanghai.”

Many other countries, whose populations are weary of pandemic restrictions and eager to move on, are betting that rising vaccination rates and developing treatments for COVID-19 mean they can avoid lockdowns and other disruptive steps and live with the virus instead.

China’s leaders have repeatedly signaled that they believe the “zero-COVID” approach remains the right one for China, even as they seek to boost a flagging economy with business tax refunds, easier credit and spending on infrastructure projects.

Entry into the country remains restricted as visas are hard to come by and international flights are few, making it costly and difficult to get a seat. Anyone entering the country must quarantine in a hotel, usually for two weeks. Chinese generally cannot leave the country unless it is for work or study.

Most analysts expect the zero-COVID policy to remain in place at least until after a major Communist Party congress this fall, where leader Xi Jinping is expected to receive a third five-year term. The party touted its approach as a success as COVID-19 ravaged other countries, and it doesn’t want a major outbreak ahead of its meeting.

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Associated press researcher Yu Bing and video producer Olivia Zhang in Beijing and researcher Si Chen in Shanghai contributed.

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