Virus Testing Becomes The New Normal As China Sticks To ‘Zero-COVID’ Strategy

BEIJING (AP) – Thousands of coronavirus testing sites have sprung up on the sidewalks of Beijing and other Chinese cities in the latest development of the country’s “zero-COVID” strategy.

Queues 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. Everyone is effectively required to be tested by a requirement to show a negative test result to enter office buildings, malls and other public places.

Liu Lele, who works for a live-streaming company, has no problem auditioning regularly, but said daytime hours don’t always fit into his schedule.

“Sometimes I get stuck at work,” he said after finishing a test Thursday near Beijing’s historic bell and drum towers. “I wish there were sites that are open 24 hours or that they don’t close until 7 or 8 pm”

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

Major cities were instructed to install test stations within a 15-minute walk for all residents. Beijing and Shanghai alone placed 10,000 or more each. Some are made up of folding tables and chairs under a temporary canopy. Others are enclosed square booths from which gloved workers reach through openings to collect a quick throat swab of the next person in line.

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 did it a week or 10 days. Tests are free, with the result reflected in the person’s smartphone health app about 12 hours later.

“This is something we should do,” said Beijing retiree Wang Shiyuan, who takes the test every three days in case he needs to go to the supermarket or take a bus. “Only when everyone meets the requirements can we reduce the risk of transmission.”

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

China kept the virus under control for a year and a half, locking down buildings and neighborhoods and quarantining infected people, but the rapidly spreading omicron variant proved more difficult to stop. More than 580 people have died in Shanghai — a huge number in a country that had only reported 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 more contagious and is spread by people without symptoms.

“We must adhere to the strategy of scaling up prevention centered on nucleic acid tests, to control the epidemic earlier and faster,” she told a news conference Thursday.

A handful of new cases – some linked to a nightlife neighborhood 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 movement restrictions and the reopening of many retail businesses in the past week.

Andy Chen, a senior analyst at consultancy Trivium China, said the proliferation of testing sites was a reaction to the failure of existing measures to control the micron in Shanghai, although officials did not say so explicitly.

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

“The regular testing requirements are intended to improve the COVID-zero strategy,” Chen said in an email. “The ultimate goal is to keep the virus under control, preventing another Shanghai-like lockdown.”

Many other countries, with their populations tired of the pandemic’s 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 measures and live with the virus.

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

Entry into the country remains restricted, with visas difficult to obtain and few international flights, making it expensive and difficult to get a seat. Anyone who enters must be quarantined in a hotel, usually for two weeks. Chinese are generally not allowed to leave the country unless it is to work or study.

Most analysts expect zero COVID policies to remain in place at least until after a major Communist Party congress this fall, at which leader Xi Jinping is expected to win a third five-year term. The party touted its approach as a success when COVID-19 was ravaging other countries and does not want a major outbreak in the run-up to its meeting.

Associated Press researcher Yu Bing and video producer Olivia Zhang in Beijing and researcher Si Chen in Shanghai contributed to this report.

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