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A look at a major part of China's aggressive 'zero-COVID' strategy: Testing

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Shanghai is reporting a new wave of COVID-19 cases, and authorities have launched mandatory mass testing across much of the city to try to stop it. Testing is a cornerstone of the Chinese government's aggressive zero-COVID strategy. And as NPR's John Ruwitch reports, even when it's not mandatory, it's still necessary.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: This is a new part of the soundtrack of life in China these days.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Those are bullhorns playing recorded messages. Some declare that proof of a negative COVID-19 test is required to enter a building or neighborhood. Others announce the procedures at local testing sites.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: In Chinese cities these days, getting tested at one of these sites has become a prominent beat in the rhythm of life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Here's why - pretty much every indoor public place requires proof of a negative test - office buildings, restaurants, even the subway. Sometimes you don't have to test every day, but when cases pop up, things get tighter. In Shenzhen, the entire population of 17 million was recently required to test every 24 hours when a handful of cases appeared. Xiao Xia works as a food delivery guy there, and it doesn't faze him.

XIAO XIA: (Through interpreter) It's not really a question of whether this is a good thing or not. It's everyone's responsibility. All we can do is respect the policy and follow it.

RUWITCH: Test sites dot China's urban landscape. Some are pinnacle tents on the sidewalk, others more permanent kiosks. In Shanghai, the authorities say there are more than 15,000 of them spread strategically around the city.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: That way, officials say, every one of Shanghai's 25 million residents is within a 15-minute walk of a PCR test. The testing is paid for by the local government and free to residents here. Elsewhere, some cities have reportedly blown out their budgets and are charging a small fee. To get tested, you have to show a special QR code in an app on your smartphone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: On a hot afternoon in Shanghai, a health worker in a white hazmat suit checks mine.

So they've scanned my code. I'm now waiting for the guy to put gloves on and swab my mouth. Opening my mouth, here we go.

A long cotton swab is pushed around near the back of my throat for a second or two.

Done.

Later in the evening, the results are negative, and the health code on my phone updates to show that I still don't have COVID-19. For the most part, people seem to be taking it all in stride, like Fiona, who talked to NPR while waiting in a long line to get swabbed in Shenzhen.

FIONA: (Through interpreter) Normally, you can get it done in about 10 or five minutes. There are a lot of test sites now, so it's really convenient.

RUWITCH: Despite China's tight COVID controls, there are still cases here, although the official number and the death toll are low. Fiona didn't want to give her full name for fear of criticizing the government. She thinks testing every day is not necessarily a great way to stop the virus.

FIONA: (Through interpreter) But at least it can make everyone feel like they can relax around others because everyone's doing the tests and everyone has the test results to show for it.

RUWITCH: Things get tricky when test results are not negative. Anyone who tests positive gets hauled off to a government isolation facility. Their apartment block and office can be locked down. And if a wave is building, entire cities can be shut down, too, like Shanghai was for two months this spring. Back on the street, a construction worker, surnamed Wu, who also didn't want to give his full name, says getting sick with COVID doesn't scare him.

WU: (Through interpreter) The thing I'm more afraid of is quarantine. If you get COVID, you have to quarantine. That's required.

RUWITCH: And if you're sent to quarantine, he says, it makes it hard to support a family. John Ruwitch, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.