AP PHOTOS: a first-person view of Beijing’s virus tests

AP PHOTOS: a first-person view of Beijing's virus tests

BEIJING (AP) – As the number of COVID-19 cases has risen in Beijing in recent days, officials identified more than 350,000 people to be tested.

I was one of them.

After a cluster of cases first emerged at a sprawling wholesale market in the Chinese capital, I had gone to the area to take photos. Although I never entered the Xinfadi market and only took photos of nearby streets, unknown to me, I was marked as a potential vector for the virus.

My phone rang on Wednesday afternoon. An official from my neighborhood neighborhood association told me that I would soon have to report to the gates of a nearby sports stadium to be taken to a coronavirus testing site.

The caller didn’t know my name, but they knew there was someone near the market associated with my mobile number. I may have been followed on my mobile. A Beijing city official said on Wednesday that 355,000 people have been identified for testing via big data, but he has not specified how.

Several dozen people walked around the meeting point, looked at each other suspiciously, and separated. A few wore multiple face masks. After checking in, we were escorted to buses – one person per row.

The buses took us to a large city park, where the grounds of a museum had been converted into a temporary test location. Hundreds of people were already queuing. Many said that, like me, they hadn’t visited the market, just been around. Some complained that they had only driven along a highway.

An official with a loudspeaker ordered people to spread out, but the size of the crowd and the length of the line made people cringe.

I looked around anxiously – was I standing between Xinfadi employees or daily customers? I would not have felt in danger of photographing the market remotely, but among the people identified as virus risk I felt a bit unsafe.

Finally I reached the front of the snake line. A worker in full protective suit and face shield took my temperature and checked my Beijing Health Kit app. For months, scanning the QR code of the app and showing your results was a constant in everyday life in Beijing.

I showed him my green code, which says ‘No abnormal conditions’, and was directed to a row of tables to register for the test.

I was given a barcode bottle and waved to a large hall, where half a dozen tables were set up, each with a pair of workers in protective suits. I sat in a chair and was told to tilt my head back and say “aaah”. The gag instinct was strong when a worker waved a cotton swab in the back of my throat.

“Okay, ready,” the worker said in English. On the return journey by bus, the mood was considerably lighter. People who had sat in silence for hours on the road talked about the virus outbreak in other countries and the merits of different brands of mobile phones.

Back at our meeting point, we said goodbye to a warning to stay at home until we receive our test results. With hundreds of thousands of people instructed to quarantine themselves, it seems difficult to maintain. But of course I plan to stay at home.

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Schiefelbein has been an AP photographer in Beijing since 2015.

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