As China scrambled to contain a new wave of COVID-19, cities have spared no effort to sanitize just about any public space, often dispatching squads of health workers in white overalls to spray disinfectant over all surfaces.
Their targets include open and sparsely populated areas like airport runways, soccer fields, and wide streets, drawing ridicule from critics who call the efforts little more than hygiene theater, as the virus is known to spread mostly through the air, not contact with contaminated objects.
Now even a Chinese city at the center of China’s current pandemic fight believes it has taken disinfection a little too far. After weeks of a fervent sanitation drive, Shanghai officials admitted Tuesday that many of the city’s pandemic practices are counterproductive and potentially harmful.
“Do not oversanitize in daily life. Do not establish sanitation walkways to disinfect humans. Do not use automatic disinfectant dispensers such as robots when there are people indoors or deploy drones to disinfect outdoor areas,” Zhu Renyi, an official from the Shanghai Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a press briefing.
Not only are these practices ineffective, they could be a hazard to the environment and people’s health, Zhu added.
The metropolis of 25 million has conducted a zealous disinfection campaign since April to curb the largest COVID outbreak in China to date. Firefighters and volunteers were recruited to join a 6,000-strong team of specialists to sterilize the environment, but experts have called many of their methods into question.
“The focus should be more on airborne transmission,” Paul Griffin, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Queensland, told VICE World News, noting that the rest of the world has moved from intensive decontamination procedures toward respiratory protection as a preventive strategy.
In a recent video on social media, dozens of officials in white overalls marched down a street in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, spraying chemicals on the road. It goes against the World Health Organization’s guidelines, which do not recommend fumigation in outdoor spaces. “Spraying disinfectants, even outdoors, can be noxious for people’s health and cause eye, respiratory or skin irritation or damage,” it wrote.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said there were also political motives behind these disinfection campaigns.
“The use of disinfectant on a large scale conjures up the image of a heroic battle against an invisible enemy, which helps boost an image that the state is working hard to stop a deadly virus,” Huang wrote on Twitter.
Authorities in the Shanghai district of Beizaichen apologized over the weekend, after disinfectant lingering in the neighborhood caused some residents to feel unwell. Officials had placed large amounts of disinfection tablets on the roads and in the sewers, expecting the rain to dilute them and set off a comprehensive disinfection. The plan fell through, when the weather didn’t cooperate, leaving undissolved tablets all over the streets.
To cut transmission in communities, specialists are also instructed to sanitize the apartments of those infected and sent to centralized quarantine—a measure that drew a backlash from residents in Shanghai.
Chinese officials had acknowledged that the risk of catching COVID from contaminated surfaces is low. Nevertheless, the country has invested substantial resources to sanitize any potential virus carriers, including international mail and deliveries.
The measure is labor intensive and challenging to implement for very little if any gain, said Griffin. “The prospect of the virus surviving in sufficient numbers to cause infection over that sort of a duration is minimal.”
Besides improving ventilation and air quality, simply wiping over high-touch surfaces would be a better utilization of resources, he said.
In the central Chinese city of Wuhan alone, Chinese authorities dispensed nearly 2,000 tons of disinfectant in a citywide disinfection campaign in early 2020. The increased use of disinfectant could pollute drinking water resources and threaten aquatic ecosystems, Chinese scientists have warned.
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