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2022-11-03 12:36:24

Several cities and counties in China have now decided to pass on the cost of COVID-19 tests to individuals after providing free but relentless tests over the past few months to curb local outbreaks.

Epidemic prevention departments in at least seven places, including Longnan in Gansu province, Guiyang in Guizhou province, Yueyang in Hunan province, Yibin in Sichuan province, and Huizhou in Guangdong province, have been charging for PCR tests and asking people to test voluntarily since November, domestic media outlet Yicai reported Wednesday. But there were exceptions in some places, where free testing would still be offered to those working in at-risk jobs, such as health care and public transportation workers.

Frequent COVID-19 testing is an integral part of China’s “zero-COVID” strategy to stamp out outbreaks and is linked to the color-coded health app that governs the mobility of people. Nearly everyone in China is required to test as frequently as 72 hours as they are required for access to many places and transportation.

While individual tests typically costs 16 yuan ($2), pooled samplings are priced as little as 3 yuan in some places, according to Yicai. 

As the news of some local governments ending free tests spread on social media, many users complained that it would add additional queuing times and longer waiting times for payments to process. One photo on microblogging site Weibo showed that the testing kiosk only accepted digital payments, and users asked how older residents without access to smartphones would pay.

​​​“We understand that mass testing increases the financial burden on the government … but the announcement reads like that it’s our decision to take a COVID-19 test or not. How is it ‘voluntary’ when I can’t go anywhere without a PCR negative result?” said a user named Lu Yao on Weibo.

“The staff at a testing booth have to check the payment, scan the nucleic acid code, and then do the swab. No wonder the line is getting longer,” said another user.

Xu Shaolin, a public affairs commentator, attributed the move of some local governments to financial concerns. Authorities have erected kiosks across the country in recent months and deployed thousands of personnel in hazmat suits for testing, straining state coffers.

“If the local government requires nucleic acid tests to enter a public place and yet people have to take them at their own expense, then it’s a new type of tax in disguise — the nucleic acid tax,” he wrote on Weibo, referring to the widely used term for PCR tests in China. “Digging into the pocket of regular people won’t be popular.”

However, some analysts have speculated that the recent announcements from local governments, as well as viral unverified posts about a “conditional reopening plan,” could signal that China is gradually shifting from its rigorous mass testing and lockdowns to curb and prevent COVID outbreaks. Some media outlets even suggested that certain transport facilities no longer required mandatory negative PCR test results for boarding trains and planes.

A hotline employee at Hefei Xinqiao International Airport in the eastern Anhui province told Sixth Tone on Thursday that the airport currently didn’t require passengers to show their COVID test result, though airlines may require them. Train stations in Zhanjiang in Guangdong province and Guilin in Guangxi province also reportedly had similar announcements on WeChat, according to Yicai, but the notices were unavailable on their respective accounts Thursday.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: People undergo COVID-19 tests at a booth in Zhengzhou, Henan province, Oct. 18, 2022. VCG)