BEIJING:China’s Hazmat-trained workers use plastic swabs to reach millions of people every day. This leaves bins full of medical waste, which has now become an environmental and economic burden of a zero-Covid strategy.
China is the last major country to commit to eliminating infections at all costs.
Near-daily testing, which is used when only a few cases are detected, is the most common weapon in an antivirus arsenal.
Cities from Beijing to Shanghai, Shenzhen and Tianjin are now home to temporary testing kiosks. Authorities ordered hundreds of millions to be swabbed every other day.
Mass testing seems set to continue as Chinese authorities insist that zero-Covid has enabled the world’s largest nation to avoid a public healthcare catastrophe.
Experts say that the method, which is a source of political legitimacy for the Communist Party, creates a tsunami of hazardous waste and an increasing economic burden for local governments that must invest tens to billions of dollars in funding the system.
“The sheer volume of medical waste being generated regularly (is) at a level that is practically unheard of in human history,” stated Yifei Li at New York University Shanghai, an environmental studies expert.
He told AFP that the problems were already becoming astronomical and would only get worse.
Beijing has been positioned as an environmental leader by reducing air pollution and setting a goal to make its economy carbon neutral by 2060. Experts say this is impossible given the current trajectory in investments in coal.
Blanket testing is now a challenge for trash.
Every positive case, which is usually a few per day in the United States, reveals a trail full of personal protective gear, test kits and face masks.
Biomedical waste, if not properly disposed of, can pollute soil and waterways and pose a threat to human health and the environment.
According to an AFP analysis, around 600 million people live in cities and provinces that have recently announced routine testing.
Different regions have implemented different restrictions. Some areas have also suspended the policy to accommodate falling cases.
The national data on the waste footprint have not been released. Officials in Shanghai said that the city produced 68,000 tonnes of medical waste last month during its Covid lockdown. This was six times more than usual.
Chinese regulations require that local authorities manage Covid waste, which is usually disposed of by incineration before it can be separated, disinfected, transported, and stored.
However, disposal systems in rural areas of the country are often overburdened.
Yanzhong Huang, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for global healthcare, said that “I’m doubtful that…the countryside really can deal with an increase in the quantity of medical waste.”
Benjamin Steuer of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology said that the spike in waste could cause some local governments to either not process it properly or “dump it on top of the ground” in temporary dumps.
China’s health ministry stated in a statement to AFP that it has made “specific demands for medical refuse management” under the national Covid protocols.
Was it a waste of money?
Beijing has asked provincial capitals and large cities of at least 10,000,000 people to create a test site within 15 minutes walk from every resident.
Top leaders expect local governments also to pay the testing bill at a time of financial difficulties for many.
Nomura analysts last month estimated that expanding the model to cover the entire country would cost between 0.9 per cent and 2.3 per cent of China’s gross domestic products.
Li, NYU Shanghai said that “the economics of it is tricky.” “You don’t want to invest permanent infrastructure to handle what you perceive as a temporary surge in medical waste.”
Jin Dong-yan is a professor at Hong Kong University’s School of Biomedical Sciences. He said that routine testing can be very inefficient and expensive, which would make it difficult for governments to invest in other essential healthcare services.
He said that authorities are more likely to overlook positive cases because the Omicron variant spreads quickly and is more challenging for them to detect than other strains.
He said, “This won’t work.” It will only wash millions of dollars into seawater.”