BEIJING (AP) — Thousands of COVID-19 test booths have appeared on sidewalks in Beijing and other Chinese cities in the latest iteration of 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 have to go to work. Others want to shop. All of them are effectively forced to be tested by a requirement to show a negative test result to enter office buildings, shopping malls and other public places.
Liu Lele, who works for a live streaming company, has no problem getting tested regularly, but said daytime opening times don’t always fit his schedule.
“Sometimes I get held up at work,” he said after finishing a test Thursday near Beijing’s historic Bell and Drum towers. “I wish there were sites that were open 24 hours or didn’t close until 7 or 8pm”
Regular resident testing is becoming the new norm, 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 instructed to set up test stations for all residents within a 15-minute walk. In Beijing and Shanghai alone, they have each posted 10,000 or more. 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.
Many cities, including Beijing, require a negative test result in the past 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 and the result is displayed in the person’s health app on the smartphone about 12 hours later.
“We have to do this,” says Beijing retiree Wang Shiyuan, who is tested every three days in case he has to go to the supermarket or the bus. “Only if everyone adheres to the requirements can we reduce the risk of transmission.”
The move follows a recent outbreak in Shanghai that has spread so widely that authorities have shut down the entire city for two months. to end it, trap millions of people and deal a blow to the national economy.
China largely kept the virus at bay for a year and a half with targeted building and neighborhood closures and quarantining of infected people, but the rapidly spreading omicron variant proved harder to stop. More than 580 people died in Shanghai — a large number in a country that had reported only a handful of deaths in early 2020 after an initial deadly outbreak in Wuhan.
Andy Chen, a senior analyst at the Trivium China consultancy, said the increase in testing sites is a response to the failure of existing measures to monitor omicron in Shanghai, although officials have not explicitly said so.
Authorities have decided that early detection is necessary if they are to fight ommicron outbreaks without taking extreme measures that cause major economic disruption.
“The regular testing requirements are aimed at improving the zero-COVID strategy,” Chen said in an emailed response. “The end goal is to keep the virus under control and avoid another Shanghai-style lockdown.”
Many other countries, faced with populations tired of pandemic restrictions and eager to move forward, 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 stated that they believe the “zero-COVID” approach remains the right one for China, even as they try to boost a faltering economy with business tax refunds, easier credit and spending on infrastructure projects.
Access to the country remains limited, with visas difficult to obtain and few international flights, making it expensive and difficult to get a seat. Anyone who does enter must be quarantined in a hotel, usually for two weeks. Chinese are generally not allowed to leave the country unless it is for work or study.
Most analysts expect the zero-COVID policy to remain in effect at least until after a major Communist Party congress this fall, with leader Xi Jinping expected to receive a third five-year term. The party hailed its approach as a success as COVID-19 hit other countries, and it doesn’t want a major outbreak ahead of its meeting.
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing and video producer Olivia Zhang in Beijing and researcher Si Chen in Shanghai contributed.