Workers in hazmat suits stick plastic swabs down millions of throats in China every day, leaving trash cans full of medical waste that have become the environmental and economic toll of a zero-Covid strategy.
China is the last major economy to stamp out infections at all costs.
Near-daily testing is the most widely used weapon in an antivirus arsenal that includes instant bans and enforced quarantines when few cases are detected.
From Beijing to Shanghai, Shenzhen to Tianjin, cities are now home to an archipelago of temporary testing kiosks, while authorities direct hundreds of millions of people to have a swab every two or three days.
Mass testing appears to be here to stay as Chinese authorities insist zero-Covid has allowed the world’s most populous nation to avoid a public health disaster.
But experts say the approach — a source of political legitimacy for the ruling Communist Party — is creating a sea of hazardous waste and a growing economic burden on local governments, which must pour tens of billions of dollars into funding the system.
“The sheer amount of medical waste that is routinely generated is on a scale practically unprecedented in human history,” said Yifei Li, an environmental studies expert at New York University Shanghai.
“The problems are already astronomical and they will only get bigger,” he told the AFP news agency.
Beijing has positioned itself as an environmental leader by cracking down on air and water pollution while setting a goal of making its economy carbon-neutral by 2060, a target experts say is unsustainable given current coal investment trends.
Blanket testing now presents a new garbage challenge.
Each positive case — typically a few dozen a day nationwide — clears up a trail of used test kits, face masks and personal protective equipment.
If not properly managed, biomedical waste can contaminate soil and water and pose a threat to the environment and human health.
– Burning Questions –
Cities and provinces, which together have a population of around 600 million, have announced some form of routine testing in recent weeks, according to an AFP analysis of government announcements and Chinese media reports.
Different regions have imposed different restrictions, and some areas have suspended the policy in line with falling cases.
Federal waste footprint data has not been released. But Shanghai officials said last month the city produced 68,500 tonnes of medical waste during its recent Covid lockdown, with daily production up to six times higher than normal.
Under Chinese regulations, local authorities are tasked with segregating, disinfecting, transporting and storing Covid waste before it is finally disposed of – usually by incineration.
But the disposal systems in the poorer rural parts of the country have long been overloaded.
“I’m not sure if … the country really has the capacity to deal with a significant increase in the amount of medical waste,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow in global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The surge in waste could prompt some local governments to improperly process it or simply “dumping it on the ground” in makeshift landfills, said Benjamin Steuer of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
In a statement to AFP, China’s health ministry said it had “specific requirements for medical waste disposal” under national Covid protocols.
– waste of money? –
Beijing has urged provincial capitals and cities with at least 10 million residents to set up a testing site within 15 minutes’ walk of each resident.
Top leaders also expect local governments to foot the bill for the tests at a time when many are struggling to balance the books.
Expanding the model across the country could cost between 0.9 percent and 2.3 percent of China’s gross domestic product, Nomura analysts said last month.
“It’s economically difficult,” said Li of NYU Shanghai. “They don’t want to invest in permanent infrastructure to process what is perceived as a short-term surge in medical waste.”
Jin Dong-yan, a professor at Hong Kong University’s School of Biomedical Sciences, said “very ineffective and costly” routine testing would force governments to back off from other much-needed healthcare investments.
Authorities are also likely to overlook positive cases because the Omicron variant spreads quickly and is harder to spot than other strains, he told AFP.
“It won’t work,” he said. “It’s just going to wash millions of dollars into the sea.”
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