Hazmat-friendly activists put pieces of plastic around the necks of millions of people in China every day, bursting cans with medical waste that have become the environmental and economic charge of a zero-Covid strategy.
China is the last major economy committed to stamping out the transition, no matter the cost.
Almost daily testing is the most commonly used weapon in the anti-virus arsenal that includes snap lockdowns and forced quarantines when only a few cases are detected.
From Beijing to Shanghai, from Shenzhen to Tianjin, cities are now home to an archipelago of makeshift testing kiosks, while officials order millions of people to be swabbed every two or three days.
Mass testing is set to come to a halt as Chinese officials insist zero-Covid has allowed the world’s most populous country to avert a public health catastrophe.
But experts say the approach – a source of political legitimacy for the ruling Communist Party – creates a sea of hazardous waste and a growing economic burden for local governments, which have to plow tens of billions of dollars to fund the system. Is.
“There[is]an enormous amount of medical waste generated on a regular basis that is practically unseen in human history,” said Yifei Li, an environmental studies expert at New York University Shanghai.
“The problems are already becoming astronomical, and they will only get bigger,” he told AFP.
Beijing has positioned itself as an environmental leader by cracking down on air and water pollution while setting a goal of making its economy carbon-neutral by 2060, a goal experts say will support the current trajectory of investment in coal. Given that it is unstable.
Blanket-testing is now posing a new garbage challenge.
Each positive case – typically a few dozen a day – leaves a trail of used test kits, face masks and personal protective gear.
If not disposed of properly, biomedical waste can contaminate soils and waterways, threatening the environment and human health.
Homes and provinces of nearly 600 million people have announced some form of routine testing in recent weeks, according to an AFP analysis of government notices and Chinese media reports.
Different regions have imposed different restrictions, and some regions have suspended policy with cases falling.
Nationwide data on the waste footprint has not been disclosed. But Shanghai officials said last month the city produced 68,500 tonnes of medical waste during its recent Covid lockdown, with daily output six times higher than normal.
Under Chinese regulations, local authorities are tasked with segregating, disinfecting, transporting and storing COVID waste before it is finally disposed of – usually by incineration.
But the settlement system in poor rural parts of the country has long been a burden.
“I’m not sure that … rural areas really have the capacity to deal with the significant increase in the amount of medical waste,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Benjamin Steer of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology said the spike in waste could prompt some local governments to process it improperly or “dump it on the ground” in temporary landfills.
In a statement to AFP, China’s health ministry said it had made “specific demands for medical waste management” as part of the national COVID protocol.
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 each resident.
Top leaders also expect local governments to introduce bills for testing at a time when many are struggling to balance the books.
Analysts at Nomura said last month that expanding the model across the country could cost China between 0.9 and 2.3 percent of GDP.
“The economics of that are difficult,” said NYU Shanghai’s Li. “You don’t want to invest in permanent infrastructure for processing what’s considered a short-term boom of medical waste.”
“Very ineffective and costly” routine testing will force governments to back away from other much-needed health investments, said Jin Dong-yan, a professor in Hong Kong University’s School of Biomedical Sciences.
He told AFP that officials are also likely to miss positive cases because the omicron variant spreads rapidly and is harder to detect than other strains.
“It won’t work,” he said. “It would just pour millions of dollars into the ocean.”
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)