Just past 8am on Sunday, homemaker Cai Meijuan woke her husband and five-year-old daughter so they could join a growing queue that snaked across their residential compound in east Beijing.
At the front of the line were workers in full white protective suits, gloves and goggles, standing behind tables, armed with tongue depressors and cotton swabs to retrieve samples from the bottom of residents’ throats.
Ms Cai’s family was among nearly a thousand residents of the Haiyuncang Hutong estate in the low-risk Dongcheng district who had been ordered to undergo swab tests for the coronavirus.
In a bid to assuage public concerns amid the recent outbreak in the city, Beijing has ordered an increasing number of people to undergo tests to check for the virus.
It has mobilised an army of some 7,000 medical staff and volunteers, allowing up to half a million samples to be taken daily.
This is despite top government scientists repeatedly emphasising that mass testing would not be necessary for the more than 20 million residents of the capital city.
Laboratories have been struggling to keep up with processing the samples, creating a massive backlog.
Beijing yesterday reported nine new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of infections in this latest outbreak to 236.
The cases so far are people who had either visited the Xinfadi wholesale food market, or were close contacts of those who were there.
When new coronavirus cases first surfaced at the market in south Beijing earlier this month, the authorities ordered all workers and stallholders, as well as those living in the market’s vicinity, to be tested.
About 11,000 people were called up for testing.
But with the Xinfadi market supplying up to 80 per cent of the city’s fruit and vegetables, there were concerns that the virus could have spread along the food supply chain.
All other markets in Beijing were also ordered to be shut for cleaning and disinfection and the vendors, too, had to be tested for the coronavirus.
Since then, the tests have also been made compulsory for restaurant workers and food handlers, ride-hailing drivers, deliverymen and medical staff.
Meanwhile, Beijing has massively raised its swab testing capacity. It said that by last Saturday, it could take 500,000 samples a day.
But with the city’s nucleic acid testing capacity at only about 230,000 a day – even with laboratories running round the clock – a huge backlog has been created, with many facing up to a one-week wait for results.
Ten medical teams are reinforcing the capital city, adding another 30,000 in capacity, while scientists are exploring batch testing – meaning up to five samples are mixed and tested at the same time – which could increase capacity to one million a day, Beijing officials said at a press conference on Sunday.
The authorities have also built a makeshift bio lab at the Peking Union Medical College Hospital. The lab started operating yesterday, the hospital said on its social media page, without elaborating on its capacity.
The government has also called on residents to “be rational” about tests, saying that only those from high-risk areas or who are planning to leave the city need to be swabbed, and to make an appointment to do so.
Some neighbourhood committees, like Madam Cai’s, however, would rather err on the side of caution despite being located about 25km away from Xinfadi.
“It’s not that much trouble, we just queued for about 20 minutes, I was chatting with my neighbours and the process was over in less than a minute,” the 32-year-old told The Straits Times.
“After that, I could go to the market and continue with my day normally. But I suppose it offers peace of mind.”
Separately, a Beijing shopping mall owned by Singapore developer CapitaLand was shut yesterday after two confirmed coronavirus patients went shopping there.
The CapitaMall Grand Canyon in the Fengtai district, in the same area where the Xinfadi market is located, has been shut for cleaning and disinfection, according to a report in the Beijing Commercial Daily newspaper.