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Virus testing the new normal as China sticks to ‘zero-Covid’

A worker wearing a protective suit swabs a woman’s throat for a Covid-19 test at a coronavirus testing site in Beijing (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
A worker wearing a protective suit swabs a woman’s throat for a Covid-19 test at a coronavirus testing site in Beijing (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Thousands of Covid-19 testing booths have popped up on streets across Beijing and other Chinese cities in the latest twist to the country’s “zero-Covid” strategy.

Lines form every day, rain or shine, even where the spread of the virus has largely stopped. Some people need to go to work. Others want to shop.

All are effectively compelled to get tested by a requirement to show a negative test result to enter office buildings, shopping centres and other public places.

Liu Lele, who works for a livestreaming company, has no problem getting tested regularly but said the daytime operating hours do not always fit his schedule.

People stand in line for Covid-19 tests at a coronavirus testing site in Beijing
People stand in line for Covid-19 tests in Beijing (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

“Sometimes I get held up at work,” he said after finishing a test near Beijing’s historic Bell and Drum towers.

“I wish there were sites open 24 hours or not closing until 7 or 8pm.”

Regular testing of residents is becoming the new normal as the ruling Communist Party sticks steadfastly 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 a 15-minute walk for all residents.

Beijing and Shanghai alone have put up 10,000 or more each.

Many of them are enclosed square booths from which gloved workers reach out through openings to take a quick throat swab from the next person in line.

A woman carrying a toddler gets a throat swab at a coronavirus testing facility in Beijing
A woman carrying a toddler gets a throat swab at a coronavirus testing facility in Beijing (Andy Wong/AP)

Many cities including Beijing are requiring a negative test result within the last three days to enter a public place or take the bus or subway.

Some have made it a week or 10 days.

The tests are free, with the result reflected on the person’s smartphone health app roughly 12 hours later.

“This is something we should do,” said Beijing retiree Wang Shiyuan, who gets tested every three days in case he needs to go to the supermarket or take a bus.

“Only when everyone obeys 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 end it, trapping millions of people and dealing a blow to the national economy.

Residents wearing face masks walk by a wall displaying various propaganda posters which encourage people to get vaccination against Covid-19 along a street in Beijing
Residents wearing face masks walk past posters encouraging people to get vaccination against Covid-19 in Beijing (Andy Wong/AP)

China kept the virus largely at bay for a year-and-a-half with targeted lockdowns of buildings and neighbourhoods and quarantining infected people, but the rapidly spreading Omicron variant proved more difficult to stop.

More than 580 people died in Shanghai – a large number in a country that had reported only 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 is spread by people without symptoms.

“We must adhere to the strategy of expanding prevention centred on nucleic acid testing, so as to control the epidemic earlier and faster,” she said on Thursday at a news conference.

A handful of new cases — some linked to a nightlife quarter in Beijing and a hair salon in Shanghai — prompted authorities to lock down areas in both cities on Thursday. The cases followed an easing of restrictions on movement and the reopening of many retail businesses in the past week.

Andy Chen, a senior analyst with the Trivium China consultancy, said the proliferation of testing sites is a reaction to the failure of existing measures to control Omicron in Shanghai, though officials have not explicitly said so.

Authorities have decided that early detection is needed if they are going to control Omicron outbreaks without extreme measures that cause major economic disruption.

“The regular testing requirements are meant to improve the zero-Covid strategy,” Mr Chen said.

“The end goal is to keep the virus under control while avoiding another Shanghai-like lockdown.”

Residents and workers wait in a barricaded line to get a throat swab at a coronavirus testing facility against the office buildings in central business district in Beijing
Residents and workers wait in a barricaded line to get a throat swab at a coronavirus testing facility in the central business district in Beijing (Andy Wong/AP)

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

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

Entry to the country remains restricted, with visas difficult to get and few international flights, making it costly and hard to get a seat.

Anyone who does enter has to 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 policies to remain in place at least until after a major Communist Party congress this autumn at which leader Xi Jinping is expected to get a third five-year term.

The party touted its approach as a success when Covid-19 was ravaging other countries, and it does not want a major outbreak in the run-up to its meeting.

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