The Perfect Enemy | China digs in for permanent zero-Covid with testing and quarantine regime
July 7, 2022

China digs in for permanent zero-Covid with testing and quarantine regime

China digs in for permanent zero-Covid with testing and quarantine regime  Financial TimesView Full Coverage on Google News

Read Time:5 Minute

China is building hundreds of thousands of permanent coronavirus testing facilities and expanding quarantine centres across many of its biggest cities as part of its zero-Covid policy, despite the economic and human toll on the world’s most populous country.

Residents of Shanghai woke up on Thursday to an announcement that lockdown measures and mass testing would be conducted in the Minhang district, home to more than 2mn people, for at least two days. The directive was issued just a week after President Xi Jinping’s administration declared victory in defending the city from the pandemic after a punishing two-month lockdown.

Tough restrictions in Shanghai as well as in Beijing and scores of other cities have driven the country to the edge of recession for just the second time in three decades. But even though measures have been eased in many areas, experts believe the government’s virus infrastructure programme is designed to sustain the controversial mass-testing and quarantine policies through 2023.

Officials are racing to execute instructions to be able to test entire city populations within 24 hours. Bigger metropolises must now have testing sites available within no more than a 15-minute walk of residents’ homes, and temporary facilities are being replaced with permanent booths sourced from private medical companies.

The country’s 31 provinces and regions are also following orders from Beijing to prepare new hospitals and quarantine facilities in the case of a Shanghai-style surge in infections — a further indication that there will be no change to the policy of isolating all asymptomatic cases in government-run centres for weeks at a time.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for Global Health at the Council for Foreign Relations think-tank, said such measures demonstrated Beijing’s commitment to its zero-Covid policy “despite this growing social, economic cost associated with this approach”.

“The government believes they could outrun the virus. But we know for the Omicron variant this is not realistic. And for an even more transmissible variant, that will make it even less feasible,” he said.

As of April, China already had 400 makeshift hospitals completed or under construction with a capacity of more than 560,000 beds, according to public comments by National Health Commission officials. Authorities in cities with more 10mn people have been told to have at least 1,500 hospital beds available in centralised quarantine facilities, in addition to back-up centres that can be put into use with a few days’ notice.

“The capacity for admission and isolation should be further strengthened, and designated hospitals . . . and centralised isolation points should be planned and prepared in advance,” Ma Xiaowei, director of the party leadership group of the NHC, wrote in Qiushi, the flagship Chinese Communist party journal last month.

In one example of the rapid progress, Ningbo, a city of 8mn south of Shanghai, opened its first centralised Covid-19 quarantine facility last month with 4,356 isolation rooms, including 200 for families to quarantine, as well as 880 rooms for staff.

Most large Chinese cities have already instituted requirements for regular Covid tests, regardless of symptoms.

The Beijing city government has introduced a requirement for residents of the capital to show a negative Covid test taken in the past 72 hours to travel freely, including on public transport.

Shanghai has established about 15,000 testing sites for its 26mn people and Lanzhou, a city of 4mn in the country’s north-west, has the capacity to test close to 150,000 people daily.

A mobile Covid-19 testing facility in Shanghai, China
Covid-19 testing booths are being established in cities across the country, including Shanghai © Bloomberg

China’s zero-Covid policy has been successful in containing the Omicron variant and keeping the death toll low, especially compared with countries such as the UK and the US. Daily case numbers have been near three-month lows with a seven-day average of about 150, down from a peak of about 30,000 in April.

But many people are frustrated at the prospect of the zero-Covid policy could be extended into a fourth year.

“My thoughts are quite simple. The Covid zero policy is a total madness: it’s inhumane and not very successful,” said a Beijing-based art curator. “The governments in Shanghai and Beijing lie to people’s faces. In Shanghai, they said they wouldn’t lock down . . . then at the end it was 60 days,” the person added.

Eight cities in China and 74mn people are now under full or partial lockdown, compared with 133mn people a week ago and 355mn people in April, according to research from Japanese bank Nomura.

National and local governments are also allocating huge amounts of resources to enacting the zero-Covid policy, diverting funds from other priorities such as poverty alleviation and infrastructure.

The potential economic costs are significant. If every city were to follow Beijing in adopting a 72-hour testing requirement, 814mn people would need to be regularly swabbed at a cost of 1.7 per cent of national gross domestic product, according to an analysis by Nomura.

China has already cancelled two big international events in recent weeks. Organisers of the Shanghai International Film Festival said this week that the event, scheduled to open on Friday, would be delayed to 2023. The announcement followed China’s decision last month to pull out of hosting next year’s Asian Cup football competition due to Covid concerns.

Jane Duckett, director of the Scottish Centre for China Research at the University of Glasgow, said the cancellations showed that the government was committed to maintaining zero-Covid at all costs.

But she added that mandatory regular testing consumed resources “that might be better used to improve the vaccination rates among older and more vulnerable groups”.

Andy Chen, a senior analyst at consultancy Trivium China, said Beijing would revise its blanket zero-Covid policy after Xi was confirmed for a third term as the country’s leader at a Communist party conference late this year.

“These measures . . . are a reaction to the mismanagement of the recent outbreak in Shanghai, where targeted and precision-guided containment measures early-on let the spread of Omicron get out of control. The set-up of regular testing sites in big cities is meant to detect and catch infections early,” he said.

But Huang was adamant that it was “likely — even after the party conference — this zero-Covid approach will be sustained, maybe through 2023”, despite the lack of epidemiological benefits.

“It’s not going to eradicate the virus,” he added. “New variants continue to rise and spread . . . [and] when you seal the population from the virus, you also sustain the immunity gap between China and the rest of the world.”

Reporting by Arjun Neil Alim in Beijing, Edward White in Seoul and Andy Lin in Hong Kong