China’s ‘health codes’ define life in the era of Covid

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Beijing (AFP) – Days after buying over-the-counter drugs at a Beijing pharmacy, university student Yu was stunned to discover that her precious green health code – the essential note needed to enter shops, offices and public transport of the city – had disappeared.

In a repeating scene in the Chinese capital, a pop-up has now warned that the app can no longer check its coronavirus risk status.

The school was closed for Chinese New Year, so access to classrooms was not a problem. Getting his fix of bubble tea, however, was another matter.

“I don’t buy enough tea to meet the delivery minimum, but the milk tea shop won’t let me in without a health code,” she lamented on the Weibo-like social media platform. Twitter.

Yu was one of thousands of people who showed up at workplaces or shopping malls in Beijing this week to find they had been barred from entering because of their health code status, while already strict anti-virus controls were tightened ahead of the Winter Olympics.

Overnight, the city had quietly rolled out a new rule requiring anyone who had purchased medicine for anything that might be a symptom of Covid – including fever, cough and dry throat – to take a test of viruses before their health app status can be restored to green.

Members of the Russian Olympic team scan their health QR code after arriving at Beijing Capital International Airport Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV AFP

But it wasn’t just a technical problem.

China – where the coronavirus first emerged in late 2019 – is one of the last places in the world to stick to a zero-tolerance policy in which the slightest hint of an outbreak is met with mass testing. and strict quarantines.

The health codes, with their red, yellow and green color coding system signifying different levels of Covid risk, have been a crucial pillar of this system.

Health tracking apps are now required to enter almost everywhere, including offices, transport stations, shops, malls and taxis.

Without it, normal life stops.


As complaints like Yu’s piled up on social media, the Weibo hashtag “Beijing Health Kit Pop-up” gained over a million views.

“I can’t go out to eat or buy a coffee – it’s so annoying,” fumed one of many affected by the change.

The “pop-up” drama highlighted the country’s reliance on the health code system, which debuted in 2020, just months after the pandemic began.

Coronavirus checks in Beijing have been stepped up ahead of February's Winter Olympics
Coronavirus checks in Beijing have been stepped up ahead of February’s Winter Olympics Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV AFP

Although apps aren’t technically required, it’s effectively impossible to get around China without one.

The Beijing app is one of dozens of local health monitoring programs that use geolocation and health screening data to track users’ movements and assess whether they’ve been near people with the disease. virus.

It also records vaccination status and coronavirus test results.

Some apps are so sensitive that they can detect specific neighborhoods visited and block users from accessing transportation if they have been to communities classified as high risk.

At least one criminal has been apprehended after having to submit data to the app, according to state media.

Apparently on the run for decades, he turned himself in because he could no longer enter stores or find jobs without the code.


The rollout of the health codes initially ran into some privacy issues – but these were quickly hushed up as China began touting its handling of the pandemic as a success, in contrast to the chaos overseas.

Now, those traveling between provinces often have to download multiple local versions of the app – as well as a national version linked to their phone numbers – and display green codes on all apps when they arrive at their destination.

Health code enforcement in Xi'an, northern China, crashed after a mass testing order in December
Health code enforcement in Xi’an, northern China, crashed after a mass testing order in December STRAFP

Many offices, restaurants and transit stations require visitors to open the app and scan location-specific QR codes to “check in” before entering.

The system’s ubiquity, while useful for officials seeking to track contacts with the coronavirus, has also proven to be one of its main weaknesses.

Residents of the western city of Xi’an complained in December of a system-wide crash on their local health code app after authorities suddenly ordered mass testing of millions of residents in due to a spike in coronavirus cases.

The order prompted residents to flock to Covid-19 testing centers, overwhelming the health code system.

Local media reported hour-long queues of people trying to enter metro stations as well as a second system crash in January after the city was placed under a strict lockdown.

The city official in charge of technology was quickly fired.

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