As the countrywide lockdown across China begins to lift, the ebb and flow of daily life starts to return to that of relative normality. In my own city of Chengdu, in the Sichuan province (which I have called ‘home’ for two years now), people are free to work, eat out and socialise again. Shopping malls, metro stations and even bars across the city once more heave with foot traffic, as a city returns to life.
This is true of countless other cities and provinces all over China – and even Wuhan, the epicentre of the Coronavirus outbreak has begun to ease its harsh lockdown measures. The threat, however, is far from gone. Travel outside of the city and one’s province remains restricted (unless you want to end up quarantined in a hotel room for 14 days) and local authorities remain on edge for a second wave of the outbreak.
There’s an App For That
Eager to monitor citizens’ movement and health, local governments have installed smartphone software within WeChat and Alipay. Either version of this software (or its regional counterpart) takes users to a short survey, where one enters a few details into the form. Have you been outside of China (or the province) in the last 14 days? Have you been into contact with anyone from the Hubei Province within that timescale? How are you feeling? Bit sick, maybe? After the survey has been completed, users will be issued with a coloured health code – green, yellow, or red. Anyone with a green code is healthy, and safe to travel. Yellow means that the user has likely come into contact with an infected person (and should be under quarantine). Red means that the user has coronavirus, and should get yourself under quarantine ASAP. Neither red or yellow is permitted to travel.
Ultimately, this quick and easy traffic light system dictates whether the user can leave their home… and where they can go. With a green health code, users are free to travel around the city as normal – entering subway stations, restaurants, shopping malls and (in the case of this ESL teacher) what few schools are open at the moment.
Chengdu being one of the least affected cities by the Coronavirus, its influence is felt less here than, say, Beijing or Shanghai. While one can expect to have their temperature taken in most shopping centres, restaurants and all subway stations, checking of the actual health code is not a constant. Our own school did need proof (screenshots) of its employees’ health status before opening, but beyond that, I have barely had to use my own code. But, as unrest grows, and the situation gets ever worse in the West, it is good to have this proof-of-health on my phone, just in case.
Red Code, Red Flags
The use of this health code based system by the government does beg some questions. Where, and by whom, is the collected data analysed? What else is this data being used for? How might a system like this be used and abused in future? Freedom loving Westerners are, naturally, skeptical.
But, right now, such a system is vital in making the country’s citizens and residents feel safe, and reassured that they are able to get out and mingle without fear of coming into contact with someone afflicted with the virus. Right now, these apps feel vital and necessary, not just in preventing further spread (or the return) of the virus, but in reassuring people that it is safe to go outside, to work, travel and have fun.
In the fight against COVID-19, these are unprecedented times, and unprecedented measures should surely follow. For some, this raises red flags, but right now these apps feel like the first steps in a return to normal, healthy life.