DEBUNKED

Covid-19 anal tests in China: why this viral video is actually fake

Children walking with their legs apart in a viral video.
Children walking with their legs apart in a viral video. © Observers
Text by: Tristan Werkmeister
6 min

In China, speculation over the use of Covid-19 rectal tests in some cities has left many social media users reeling. One video, in particular, was viewed millions of times according to US media before being censored by authorities. It shows children walking awkwardly with their legs apart, apparently after being subjected to anal tests for the coronavirus. But this is not true: our investigation found that the hospital where it was filmed only carries out mouth swabs. According to Chinese media, the children in the video have just been circumcised.

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At first glance, the video is rather funny: children and teenagers, presumably accompanied by their parents, are walking with their legs wide apart as they leave a hospital. Shared on Chinese social media such as Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) and Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok), the caption reads (in Mandarin): "Residents of Shijiazhuang, after receiving an anal test, walk like penguins".

Where was this video shot?

Thanks to geolocation tools available online, we can already establish that the video was not shot in Shijiazhuang, contrary to what the embedded captions claim, but 800 km away, in Xi'an.

On January 31, a post from the Shijiazhuang Online Complaints Centre described the video as a "rumour", citing an interview with a prominent medical expert: "Following the outbreak of the virus, all the city's neighbourhoods carried out tests by mouth or nose, never anal," said Wang Haibin, chief doctor of Shijiazhuang Hospital No. 5. 

Thanks to a reverse image search (see here how to do it), it is possible to find a slightly longer version of the video without text. In the last few seconds, the video pans to the right, partially unveiling the pavement in front of the building. There are a row of trees (in red) whose lower trunks have been painted white, a bike rack full of bicycles (in green) and a concrete block (in yellow).

Screenshot from the longer version of the video
Screenshot from the longer version of the video © Observers

In the comments of the videos posted on Weibo, some users said that it took place at a hospital in Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi province. By searching on Baidu Maps, the Chinese equivalent of Google Maps, you can browse through the hospitals that match the visual clues in the video. The Lintong District People's Hospital (临潼区人民医院) does. Thanks to the Total View function (comparable to Google Maps' Street View), the elements previously described can be recognised (trees, bicycle plots), as well as the glass façade (in pink), the hospital sign (in light blue) and the canopy (in orange).

Screenshot from the viral video (left) and screenshot from Total View (right).
Screenshot from the viral video (left) and screenshot from Total View (right). © Observers

However, the hut in front of the hospital, visible on the video, does not correspond to what we see on the Total view images. But if we look at the history of satellite images of the same place, we can see that the hut was non-existent in June 2019 but present in April 2020. 

Satellite images of the hospital without the hut on June 2019 (left) and with the hut on April 2020 (right).
Satellite images of the hospital without the hut on June 2019 (left) and with the hut on April 2020 (right). © Observers

It is also possible to cross-reference satellite images with amateur footage on site. In the screenshot below, taken from a Douyin video, we can verify the existence and location of the hut.

Video posted in September 2020 shot from the pavement of the hospital, showing the hut.
Video posted in September 2020 shot from the pavement of the hospital, showing the hut. © Observers

What do these images really show?

The France 24 Observers team was able to find additional information by running a Baidu search with the keywords "boy walk penguin xi'an" in Mandarin (男孩走企鹅西安). Beijing News, a news outlet close to the Chinese communist party, published an article and two videos about the publication of the viral images. The article and the videos were published on February 2 and 3, after the video had gone viral.

In the first video, recent images presented from the Lintong District People's Hospital are compared with the viral video images: the turnstile and the posters on the walls correspond.

Posters on the wall of the hospital (top) and turnstile at the exit (bottom), screenshots from the Beijing News video compared to the viral video.
Posters on the wall of the hospital (top) and turnstile at the exit (bottom), screenshots from the Beijing News video compared to the viral video. © Observers

In their video, The Beijing News interviews hospital security guards. They state:

- "These are the kids who came to get circumcised and so they were walking with their legs apart".

- "Like penguins?" the journalist follows up.

- "Yes, like that."

In a second video, a woman, introduced as the creator of the original video, is anonymously interviewed by The Beijing News. She confirms that the video was filmed in the Lintong District People's Hospital, and also says that the children had just come out of circumcision surgery. They are said to be children of her family. She says:

"After the operation, the children walked in a very funny way. I wanted to take a video of them, so that they would have a memory. ...] I put the video on Douyin and Kuaishou (Editor's note: another video-sharing app) [...] I never thought that the video could be taken by someone in bad faith who would add text to it. The video was edited, the rumour spread online. ...] This case has had a strong impact on me and my family, and has created a harmful influence in society. On that note, I sincerely apologise, and I reserve the right to take the people involved to court. Please do not believe the rumours and do not spread them."

When contacted by the editorial staff at France 24 Observers, the hospital said that their staff only used mouth swabs to screen for Covid-19, and that they do not perform rectal screening. The hospital did not react to the viral video.

Conclusion 

Anal tests are indeed used medically to screen for certain diseases but our investigations found that the children shown in this video did not have these tests. Although the creator of the video and the date it was taken has not been confirmed, we also found that the video was shot in a hospital in Xi'an and not in Shijiazhuang. According to the Chinese press, this video is authentic but had been used out of context: the children walking with their legs apart had recently been circumcised. 

Translations: Ninan Wang, RFI Mandarin