Workers in Hazmat suits shove plastic swabs down millions of throats in China every day, leaving trash cans full of medical waste that has become the environmental and economic levy of a zero Covid strategy.
China is the last major married economy to eradicate infections, whatever the cost.
Near-daily testing is the most commonly used weapon in an antivirus arsenal that includes instant lockdowns and forced quarantines when only a few cases are detected.
From Beijing to Shanghai, Shenzhen to Tianjin, cities are now home to an archipelago of temporary testing kiosks, as authorities order hundreds of millions of people to get swabbed every two or three days.
Mass testing looks set to stay as Chinese officials insist zero-Covid has saved the world’s most populous nation from a public health catastrophe.
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 invest tens of billions of dollars in funding the system. .
“The amount of routinely generated medical waste (is) on a scale virtually unheard of in human history,” said Yifei Li, an environmental studies expert at New York University in Shanghai.
“The problems are already getting astronomical, and they will continue to get worse,” he told UKTN.
Beijing has positioned itself as an environmental leader, tackling air and water pollution while setting a goal of making its economy carbon neutral by 2060, a goal experts say is untenable given of the current trajectory of coal investment.
Coverage testing now poses a new waste challenge.
Each positive case – usually a few dozen a day across the country – unfurls a trail of used test kits, face masks and personal protective equipment.
If not disposed of properly, biomedical waste can contaminate soil and waterways, threatening the environment and human health.
Cities and provinces housing a total of around 600 million people have announced some form of routine testing in recent weeks, according to an UKTN analysis of Chinese government and media notices.
Different regions have imposed different restrictions and some regions have suspended the policy as cases drop.
National waste footprint data was not disclosed. But Shanghai officials said last month the city generated 68,500 tonnes of medical waste during its recent Covid lockdown, with daily output up to six times higher than normal.
Under Chinese regulations, local authorities are responsible for separating, disinfecting, transporting and storing Covid waste before finally disposing of it – usually by incineration.
But sewage systems in the poorest rural parts of the country have long been overloaded.
“I’m not sure that … the campaign really has the capacity to deal with a significant increase in the amount of medical waste,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior researcher for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The surge in litter may prompt some local governments to treat it inappropriately or simply “throw it on the ground” in temporary landfills, said Benjamin Steuer of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
In a statement to UKTN, China’s health ministry said it had formulated “specific requirements for the management of medical waste” as part of national Covid protocols.
Waste of money?
Beijing has urged provincial capitals and cities with at least 10 million people to set up a testing site within a 15-minute walk of every resident.
Top leaders also expect local governments to foot the testing bill at a time when many are struggling to balance the books.
Extending the model nationwide could cost between 0.9 and 2.3 percent of China’s gross domestic product, Nomura analysts said last month.
“The economics of this are tricky,” said NYU Shanghai’s Li. “You don’t want to invest in permanent infrastructure to deal with what is perceived to be a short-term increase in medical waste.”
Jin Dong-yan, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Biomedical Sciences, said “highly inefficient and expensive” routine testing would force governments to forgo other much-needed investments in the field of health.
Authorities are also likely to miss positive cases because the Omicron variant spreads quickly and is harder to detect than other strains, he told UKTN.
“It won’t work,” he said. “It will just wash millions of dollars into the sea.”
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