Rumours swirl as rates rise

The country’s once-ubiquitous Covid health codes are back in the spotlight as rumours swirl about their possible return amid the ongoing wave of respiratory infections, with renewed calls for the controversial phone apps that produce the code to be scrapped once and for all.

Recent posts widely circulated on social media claimed the apps were back in use in provinces such as Guangdong and Sichuan, with screenshots showing users holding a “green” health code around 5pm on Dec 1, 2023.

However, Caixin Global confirmed with frontline public health and service staff that the two provinces have not re-introduced their mandatory use, although the health code apps have never been completely disabled.

The posts have sparked concerns about whether the health codes would suddenly turn “red” and restrict people’s movement, as they did during the pandemic.

In addition, some social media users have asked why the apps are still around nearly a year after China’s reopening from three years of Covid restrictions.

In 2020, in the wake of the Covid outbreak, many regions across China set up health code systems that collect information on the movement of residents and their nucleic acid test records to determine whether they are at risk of infection.

If a person had a “green” code, they could travel more or less freely, while a “yellow” or “red” code subjected individuals to varying degrees of restrictions, including being barred from travel.

On Dec 4, a staff member with Guangzhou’s official health hotline 12320 told Caixin that Guangdong’s health code app is “currently not in use”.

However, residents can still use the app to check their vaccination status and nucleic acid test results, among other things.

Authorities in the regions have also not announced that these apps have been deactivated.

As the online posts coincide with a rise in respiratory illnesses, questions have been raised about whether the two are related.

China’s recent wave of infections have been caused by multiple pathogens, including the flu and mycoplasma pneumoniae.

The local health codes turning green “has nothing to do with respiratory diseases,” a staff member on the Beijing Municipal Health Commission’s hotline said.

Still, the staffer said it is impossible to predict whether the apps will be re-introduced in the future to curb the spread of the flu. “We have to wait for notification from our superiors,” and there is no way to predict how they will want to respond to the virus, said the staffer.

The ubiquitous use of the health code has fuelled concerns over personal data collection.

In June last year, news that authorities in Zhengzhou, Henan province, abused the health code system to block depositors swindled by several rural banks from travelling to the city to complain caused an uproar over the misuse of the system.

“Taking health codes offline should be back on the agenda,” Zhao Hong, a law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, wrote in an article published Wednesday, citing the risk of personal data being leaked and misused. — The Straits Times/ANN

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