A COVID-19 story

Background and context. In mainland China, the government implemented strict COVID-19 policies known as “zero-COVID”.

Starting from 2020 until early December 2022, people were required to register their IDs with regionally-developed contact tracing applications known as “Health Codes” which allowed them to scan a QR code before entering any venues to register their visit. After scanning the QR code, the “Health Code” app would display the person’s health status associated with their IDs. Only when the status is “green” can the person enter the venue.

In 2022, people were required to complete COVID-19 PCR tests once in every often (the frequency required differed with the region, but generally varies between 1 to 3 days) to enter public venues or risk losing their “green” status.

Now that COVID-19 is long behind us, I have always wanted to tell my very own COVID-19 story. To be specific, it wasn’t actually my own story, but my mother’s story.

It was February 21, 2022.

My mother’s sister, who lived in Fujian province, was diagnosed with a malignant tumor, which required a surgery to remove. The second day, my mother would be departing for Fujian to visit her sister. 7pm in the evening, she opened the Beijing Health Kit (Beijing’s COVID-19 contact-tracing app), to make sure that she would be able to make the trip tomorrow.

A “popup” appeared on her Beijing Health Kit (For Beijing Health Kit, a “popup” indicated that you had an abnormal contact tracing status, and would prevent you from showing your “green” status). The popup read,

Because you have recently purchased designated types of medicines, and haven’t completed a PCR test within 72 hours of your purchase, Beijing Health Kit is unable to verify your health status. You must complete a PCR test immediately. Beijing Health Kit will restore your green status 24 hours after receiving your PCR result. You will have to wait for 14 days to restore your green status if you are unable to complete a PCR test.

Back then, if you were to purchase any medicines that might be used for treating COVID-19 symptoms, you were required to register your ID and complete a PCR test. Presumably, this was to prevent people from treating COVID-19 symptoms on their own and dodging the mandatory quarantine.

Mom was worried. She bought some antibiotics on February 14, which are considered “designated types of medicines”, but she has already completed the required PCR test. Why did the “popup” appear? How did she lose her “green” status? Her sister will be undergoing a surgery the day after tomorrow, if my mom couldn’t go there, then what can she do? What can she do?

She called 12345 — the government service hotline.

The person on the other end was a woman, and her voice seemed to be numb. She told my mother in a cold and annoyed voice that she had sent the issue to Beijing Big Data Center (the operator of Beijing Health Kit), but other than that, “we couldn’t help.” At our suggestion, my mother rushed downstairs for a PCR test, and refreshed her Beijing Health Kit every 10 minutes. Still with the “popup”.

Mom called 12345 again. The person on the other end told my mom to “just wait” in an impatient tone. But it’s a matter of life and death of the one that my mom holds dearest! She was about to cry. About to cry.

Almost in a begging tone, mom asked if she could contact Beijing Big Data Center directly. The person on the other end said, still with the annoyed tone, that “we don’t have the phone number for Beijing Big Data Center”, before hanging up. I searched online for Beijing Big Data Center’s phone number, and I found it easily — a simple effort that the government service center was unwilling to make.

Opposite the phone seems to be a young man who has just graduated. He told my mom that in order for any problem to be actually solved on the government service hotline, it has to be elevated to a “Class A” issue. 12345 said that there were no “Class A” issues.

I went to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. At 2am, I heard my mom calling.

The second day, she went to the train station to try her luck. The staff didn’t allow my mom to enter, because there was the “popup”. Mom sat down on a chair in a daze and called the big data center again. It was the same young man. Mom told him everything that had happened in the past few days. As she spoke, she choked up.

The young man was touched, and told my mom that he would find somebody to solve her problem immediately. Mom was already out of hope. Out of hope for everything. After begging and speaking a few words, she hang up. Ten minutes later, the “green” status returned.

On the train, mom called the big center again. Still that anonymous young man who has just graduated. My mom thanked him again and again. Again and again.

Though zero-COVID may be harsh, there’s still warmth in people’s hearts. (March 17, 2024)