Hazmat-enabled workers stab millions of throats with plastic wipes every day in China, leaving bins full of medical waste that has become the environmental and economic levy of a zero-covid strategy.
China is the last major economy to have remained faithful to eradicating infection no matter the cost.
Near-daily tests are the most widely used weapon in an antivirus arsenal that includes rapid 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 test kiosks, with authorities ordering hundreds of millions of people to take a test every two or three days.
Mass tests seem to persist as Chinese authorities insist that Covid zero enabled the world’s most populous country to avoid a public health disaster.
But experts say the approach — a source of political legitimacy for the ruling Communist Party — creates a sea of hazardous waste and an increasing economic burden on local governments, who must pump tens of billions of dollars to fund the system.
“The sheer amount of medical waste that is routinely generated (is) on a scale practically unseen in human history,” said Yifei Li, an environmental studies expert at New York University Shanghai.
“The problems are already getting astronomical and they will get even bigger,” he told AFP.
Beijing has positioned itself as an environmental leader, cracking down on air and water pollution and setting a goal of making its economy carbon neutral by 2060, a goal experts say is unsustainable given the current trajectory of coal investment.
Blanket testing now poses a new waste challenge.
Every positive case — usually several dozen a day across the country — unfurls a trail of used test kits, face masks and personal protective equipment.
If not properly disposed of, biomedical waste can contaminate soil and waterways and pose a threat to the environment and human health.
Cities and counties totaling about 600 million people have announced some form of routine testing in recent weeks, according to an AFP analysis of government and Chinese media reports.
Different regions have imposed different restrictions, and some areas have suspended policies in line with declining cases.
National data on the waste footprint has not been disclosed. But Shanghai officials last month said the city produced 68,500 tons of medical waste during the recent Covid lockdown, with daily production up to six times higher than normal.
Under Chinese regulations, local authorities are tasked with separating, disinfecting, transporting and storing Covid waste before it is finally disposed of – usually by incineration.
But disposal systems in the poorer rural parts of the country have long been overloaded.
“I’m not sure… rural areas really have the capacity to handle a significant increase in medical waste,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The spike in waste may prompt some local governments to not process it properly or simply “dump it on the ground” in temporary landfills, said Benjamin Steuer of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
In a statement to AFP, China’s health ministry said it has set “specific requirements for medical waste management” 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 test site within a 15-minute walk of every resident.
Top leaders also expect local governments to foot the bill for testing at a time when many are struggling to balance the books.
Expanding the model to the entire country could cost between 0.9 and 2.3 percent of China’s gross domestic product, analysts at Nomura said last month.
“Its economy is tough,” said NYU Shanghai’s Li. “You don’t want to invest in permanent infrastructure to handle what’s seen as a wave of medical waste in the near term.”
Jin Dong-yan, a professor at Hong Kong University’s School of Biomedical Sciences, said “highly ineffective and expensive” routine testing would force governments to pull back on other much-needed health care investments.
Authorities are also likely to miss positive cases, as the Omicron variant spreads quickly and is more difficult to detect than other strains, he told AFP.
“This isn’t going to work,” he said. “It will just wash millions of dollars into the sea.”
(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)