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

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

Starting in 2020, China rolled out a contact tracing program that assigns a QR code to everyone in the country. It shows your covid status and allows you to enter public venues or take public transportation. Part of China’s stringent zero-covid policy, the system has persisted, and some of the once-lauded features that kept deaths comparatively low in the country now feel more burdensome than beneficial to its citizens. (Most covid apps in other countries have been suspended. We documented all of them back in 2020.)

The pop-up, 弹窗, is one additional complicated layer that Beijing added to its tracing system. This window in the mobile covid app won’t go away unless the user immediately takes a PCR test. It gives broad instructions on what to do under the title “friendly reminders,” but it’s not so friendly. It masks a user’s QR code so that it can’t be scanned, thus denying people access to just about everywhere in China. In some cases, it takes only a day to get a PCR test to make the window go away; other times, people may be asked to quarantine at home for seven days or more.

I have friends scattered around all parts of China, and this year I’ve seen so many of them complaining about it. “I went to take a PCR test to solve the pop-up window problem, but the testing location turned out to be a high-risk zone, so I was asked to quarantine at home for 14 days,” wrote a friend in April. The specifics may differ, but they all agree on the particular menace: no one knows why they are receiving the pop-up window or when they will get it, and there’s no way to prepare for it.

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

But the problem is, despite being touted as a high-tech pandemic solution, the app’s risk-identifying mechanism tends to cast a wider-than-necessary net, with zero explanation as to why the pop-up is appearing—which often leaves people confused and stuck in covid limbo. 

That’s what happened to Flora Yuan, a 28-year-old Beijing resident. She received the pop-up window for the first time earlier this year when she was walking outside her office building; she was immediately blocked from reentering. “After the pop-up window, you could still walk around on the street, but you’d need a QR code to go into any place, a park, a restaurant, or a shop,” she told me recently. 

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