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.

Do you still remember the “popup”? The popup that appeared on Beijing’s COVID-19 contact tracing app? It was the notification that had the power to change your life in an instant by denying you from entering any public venues. It happened to my family on February 21, 2022, and it turned our world absolutely upside down.

Back then, my aunt was diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor and needed critical surgery. Mom planned to visit her the next day. At 7 PM, she opened the app to check if she could travel. But then, the dreaded “popup” appeared.

Mom was frantic. My aunt’s surgery was the day after tomorrow. If she couldn’t be there, what would happen? I could see the anxiety etched on her face, and it made my heart race. It didn’t seem like I could do anything. As I watched, she called the government service phone number.

After a wait that seemed like centuries, somebody answered. I sat beside Mom and saw her expression turning from anxiety to anger. After she hung up, Mom seemed almost out of hope with an unforgettable pale look on her face. Turns out, the woman on the other side told her to “just wait,” in a numb and impatient tone. My heart ached ever so strongly: this was a matter of life and death, and no one was willing to help us! My aunt’s surgery was set for 2 days, if Mom can’t go, who will go there?

Mom teared up. Wow… In fact, this is the first time in years that I saw my always strong and supporting Mom tear up like that. I shivered, and gave Mom a hug. Her tears wetted my shirt as I felt a genuine helplessness for the first time in my life.

We decided to call the contact tracing app’s operator directly, so the problem can be solved quicker. Time was ticking away, and we had to solve the problem before the call center ended operations for the day. I scoured through what seemed like the entire repository of unbearably clumsy government websites trying to find the phone number, but my effort was in vain. Nobody would help us, and nobody could help us. The government websites that would take a whole minute to load didn’t help either.

After what seemed like centuries, we eventually found the number. With a ray of hope, Mom called, and I overheard the calm and patient voice of what seemed like a young man. Though empathetic, he told us that unfortunately, he still couldn’t help.

I went to bed, but my heart constantly rumbled as I thought about everything that happened, and I could hardly sleep. The anxiety and pain gnawed at me. At 2 AM, I heard my Mom calling again. I couldn’t bear the thought that Mom stayed up the entire night.

The next day, I went to school as usual, and Mom went to the train station to try her luck. I couldn’t focus at all, with the worry and the thought of what’s about to happen constantly lingering on my mind. Once I’m home, I rushed to Dad to ask if Mom was able to make the trip.

At first, the staff didn’t let her in because of the popup. She sat down, dazed, and called again. The same young man answered. Mom, choking up, told him everything that had happened. He promised to find someone to solve her problem immediately. Mom had lost hope by then and hung up.

Ten minutes later, her “green” status returned. That was when Mom’s emotion finally bursted, with her collapsing on the floor and crying. After she settled a bit, she dashed to the train and boarded. On the train, she called the man again, thanking him again and again.

Though two years have passed, I still reflect upon this experience from time to time. Do you still remember the young man? It was him on the other end of a phone line that made all the difference. He may have been just a voice on the line, but his empathy showed the power of individual care in times of crisis. In a world where the emphasis was often on collective benefits, his actions served as a reminder that behind every statistic, there’s a person with their own unique story and struggles. And in the face of adversity, it’s these moments of compassion and understanding that truly make a difference. (May 25, 2024)