BEIJING: Hazmat-suited workers poke plastic swabs down millions of throats in China each day, leaving bins bursting with medical waste that has become the environmental and economic levy of a zero-COVID strategy.
China is the last major economy wedded to stamping out infections no matter the cost.
Near-daily testing is the most commonly used weapon in an anti-virus arsenal that includes snap lockdowns and forced quarantines when just a few cases are detected.
From Beijing to Shanghai, Shenzhen to Tianjin, cities are now home to an archipelago of temporary testing kiosks, while authorities order hundreds of millions of people to get swabbed every two or three days.
Mass testing appears set to stay as Chinese authorities insist that zero-COVID has allowed the world’s most populous nation to avoid a public health catastrophe.
But experts say that the approach – a source of political legitimacy for the ruling Communist Party – creates a sea of hazardous waste and a mounting economic burden for local governments who must plough tens of billions of dollars into funding the system.
“The sheer amount of medical waste that is being generated on a routine basis (is) at a scale that is practically unseen in human history,” said Yifei Li, an environmental studies expert at New York University (NYU) Shanghai.
“The problems are already becoming astronomical, and they will continue to grow even bigger,” he told AFP.
Beijing has positioned itself as an environmental leader, cracking down on air and water pollution while setting the goal of making its economy carbon-neutral by 2060, a target experts say is untenable given the current trajectory of investments in coal.
Blanket testing is now posing a new trash challenge.
Each positive case – typically a few dozen a day nationwide – unspools a trail of used test kits, face masks and personal protective gear.
If not disposed of properly, biomedical waste can contaminate soil and waterways, posing threats to the environment and human health.