A health worker takes a swab sample from a man at the entrance of a residential area under Covid-19 lockdown in the Changning district of Shanghai on June 11, 2022. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP)

Open your mouth, swab your throat, take a swab: workers in protective suits carry out hundreds of millions of corona tests every day in China – even if there are only a few dozen Covid cases across the country.

The mass tests are an important part of Beijing’s zero-Covid strategy. This controversial strategy is now becoming more and more of an environmental problem: the tests produce tens of thousands of tons of medical waste.

The People’s Republic is the last major country on earth that is trying to prevent corona infections at all costs in order to prevent the health system from being overloaded. That is why there are extremely strict quarantine rules and lockdowns that sometimes last for months.

Hundreds of millions of Chinese need to be tested every two or three days, some even daily. In provincial capitals and large cities with a population of ten million or more, the government stipulates that nobody should have to walk more than 15 minutes to the nearest PCR test site.

Millions and millions of tubes, swabs, packaging and protective suits end up in the trash every day. “The amount of medical waste per day has reached levels that are virtually unprecedented in human history,” said Yifei Li, an environmental researcher at New York University in Shanghai. “The problems are already huge and will only get worse.”

Due to the rapid economic development, China’s environment is already heavily polluted. Air and water pollution laws have been tightened in recent years. The People’s Republic wants to be CO2-neutral by 2060 – an ambitious goal that is almost impossible to achieve given the country’s dependence on coal.

The mass PCR tests pose another ecological challenge for the country: If the medical waste is not disposed of properly, it can contaminate the soil and water.

However, there is no nationwide data on the amount of corona waste. Authorities in Shanghai said 68,500 tons of medical waste were generated there during the lockdown from mid-March to early June – six times more than usual.

Under Chinese law, authorities are responsible for sorting, disinfecting and storing this garbage until it is finally disposed of – usually by incineration.

“I’m not sure the country has the capacity to cope with this significant increase in medical waste,” said Yanzhong Huang, public health expert at the US think tank Council on Foreign Relations.

Benjamin Steuer from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology also doubts that all municipalities dispose of garbage correctly – and fears that it will simply end up in landfills.

Disposal is expensive. The municipalities are already heavily burdened financially by the mass testing. If all 1.4 billion Chinese are actually to be tested regularly, that would cost between 0.9 and 2.3 percent of gross domestic product, the Nomura Bank estimated in May.

Expert Jin Dong-yan, who teaches at the University of Hong Kong, considers routine PCR testing to be “inefficient and expensive”. It forces local governments to refrain from making other meaningful investments in the health sector.