How the covid pop-up is wreaking havoc on everyday life in China

And for the more than 20 million people who live in or visit Beijing, the capital, there is another problem: a pop-up window that can randomly appear on your phone to disrupt all your plans.

Since 2020, China has rolled out a contact tracing program that assigns a QR code to all residents of the country. It shows your covid status and allows you to enter public areas or use public transport. Part of China’s strict coronavirus policy, the system has survived, and some of the once-praised features that kept the country’s death rate comparatively low now seem more burdensome than helpful to its citizens. (Most covid applications in other countries have been suspended. We have documented them still in 2020.)

The 弹窗 popup is another complex layer that Beijing has added to its tracking system. This window in the covid mobile app will not disappear unless the user does a PCR test right away. It gives general instructions on what to do under the heading “friendly reminders”, but it’s not that friendly. It masks the user’s QR code so that it cannot be scanned, thus denying people access to almost everywhere in China. In some cases, it only takes one day to complete a PCR test for the window to disappear; in other cases, people may be asked to quarantine at home for seven or more days.

I have friends all over China and this year I have seen many of them complain about it. “I went to get a PCR test to solve the pop-up problem, but the testing site turned out to be a high-risk area, so I was asked to quarantine at home for 14 days,” a friend wrote in April. The details may vary, but they all agree on a specific threat: no one knows why they are getting the popup or when they will get it, and there is no way to prepare for it.

Officially, Beijing municipal authorities say there are several reasons why people get the pop-up: you were in a city with recent cases of covid; you have just been abroad; you were in the same “time and space” with someone who contracted covid; or you didn’t get a PCR test within 72 hours of buying fever or cough medicine.

But the problem is despite the app being touted as a high-tech solution to combat the pandemic, the app’s risk detection mechanism tends to cast the net wider than necessary.without any explanation as to why the popup appears, which often leaves people confused and stuck in Covid limbo.

This is exactly what happened to Flora Yuan, a 28-year-old Beijing resident. She first saw the pop-up earlier this year while walking outside her office building; she was immediately blocked from re-entry. “After the pop-up window, you can still walk down the street, but you will need a QR code to enter any place, park, restaurant or store,” she told me recently.

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