For an hour every day, Xu Xinhua waits in line for a health worker to shove a tampon down his throat and spin him around. Each time, he hopes his Covid test will be negative so he can continue delivering food, medicine and flowers to people in Shanghai.
Mr. Xu, 49, is paid hourly by Shansong Express, a long-distance courier service, but only when fulfilling orders. “It means you work one hour with no earnings,” Mr. Xu said in an interview.
The routine is familiar to hundreds of millions of people as China makes lab testing for Covid a permanent feature of daily life. In major cities across the country, even when no cases have been reported, residents are required to 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 to try to eliminate Covid, and the spread of the highly contagious variant of Omicron is challenging its strategy of mass lockdowns and quarantines. The country is already using health code apps to monitor its citizens and track infections, and it is imposing 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 turn into larger outbreaks. But the policy can be costly and time-consuming, undermining central government efforts to revive the economy.
In Shanghai, just two weeks after the city lifted its two-month lockdown, authorities placed millions of people under new lockdowns to carry out mass testing, sparking protests in some areas. In Beijing, days after the city said it had 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 closing businesses.
Workers say the time it takes to get tested reduces their pay. Local governments take money from anti-poverty projects to pay for the tests. Businesses worry the requirement will hurt productivity, and economists fear people are staying home to avoid trouble.
Some local officials have tried to reduce testing. Others have acknowledged the huge burden that routine testing has placed on citizens. But China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has ordered the country to stick to the strategy of eradicating infections “unwaveringly”, and dozens of officials have been fired for mishandling the outbreaks, making every effort to relax politically risky restrictions.
“When you’re a local government official and you face these competing demands, you’re going to rank them,” said Yanzhong Huang, global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think any rational local government official will always 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 could get tested within a 15-minute walk of where they lived, tiny testing booths, with holes for as gloved hands come out and rub their throats, appeared in city squares, shopping plazas 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 launched some sort of standardized testing system, according to a report by financial firm Soochow. Securities, based in Suzhou.
The approach fueled public anger in some places. In Shanghai, authorities have forced residential complexes or even city blocks to lock down for testing in recent days, sometimes because only one resident was in the same store or in the same subway car as a person. who later tested positive.
On Monday evening, frustrated residents of Yangpu City’s northeast district banged pots and shouted “End the lockdown!” after their resort was closed over the weekend, said Jaap Grolleman, a Dutch expat who lives in the neighborhood. More than a dozen police 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 saw his neighbors protest. “You don’t know if anyone before you or after you tested positive, which means you would be driven into quarantine or your whole compound would be locked down.”
In Beijing’s Chaoyang district, some residents are bristling at more testing and lockdowns. Zoey Zhou, a reporter who lives in the neighborhood, said she was worried 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 then impose more burden on the public and increase surveillance in the name of epidemic prevention,” Zhou said. “Why am I deprived of the freedom I should have?”
There are signs of how China’s pandemic policies are impacting the economy. Fewer people are shopping, driving down retail sales. People are less interested in buying property; property sales fell 39% in April from 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 the city’s “severe financial constraints”. In Kaifeng, to the south, officials said they had raised $3 million for the tests “under very difficult financial circumstances”.
Estimates of the total cost of the new testing policy vary, but run into the tens of billions of dollars. If the tests are extended to small towns, capturing up to 70% of the population, it could cost up to 1.8% of annual economic growth, according to Japanese bank Nomura.
Shanghai said in August it would 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 taken a hit during the two-month lockdown in Shanghai when he had to live in a hotel that would allow him to come and go.
Some 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 tests “should not become the norm”. And some cities have relaxed requirements for how often testing must be done.
In the southern province of Jiangxi, where civil servants have faced pay cuts and bonus cuts for months due to the tight budget, officials decided last week to halt mass testing in the areas with low cases, citing them as a barrier to economic development. .
Testing can break a chain of transmission before it escalates into a wider outbreak, experts say, but that’s not sustainable in the long term. Other measures, such as increasing vaccinations and securing antiviral drugs, could help a country build broader immunity and better prepare for future outbreaks.
But of the 264 million people aged 60 or over in China, only 64% have received a reminder, a figure experts say is too low. According to a recent study, a third dose of the main Chinese vaccine Sinovac is needed to significantly increase protection against serious illness and death.
Some business leaders have pointed out what they see as the short-sightedness of the government’s approach. In a recent meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and other foreign business leaders, Jörg Wuttke, the Chinese chief representative of BASF, the German chemicals giant, said he had urged the leader to focus on vaccinations rather than testing. It was unfathomable, Mr. Wuttke told Mr. Li, how failing to vaccinate the elderly “can hold the economy hostage.”
Li youLiu Yi and Joy Dong contributed to the research.