Daily PCR tests in China’s Shenzhen as zero-Covid policy continues

Residents in Shenzhen, in China’s Guangdong province, are subject to a PCR test every 24 hours, and many are stressed about not being able to function in their daily lives properly if the negative result does not arrive on time.
Residents in Shenzhen, in China’s Guangdong province, are subject to a PCR test every 24 hours, and many are stressed about not being able to function in their daily lives properly if the negative result does not arrive on time. © Observers

While a growing number of countries are dropping regulations for the Covid-19 pandemic, most regions in China are still imposing strict quarantine and testing policies, despite public complaints. In southern Guangdong province, the preventive measures are stringent, and a recent outage of the province’s Covid pass in the industrial city Shenzhen triggered further chaos.

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As the rest of the world settles for coexisting with Covid-19, China seems to remain adamant about its zero-Covid policies by implementing strict lockdown and testing regulations.

In the past few days, Shenzhen, a city of more than 17 million people in Guangdong province, has been witnessing an upsurge of Covid cases, pushing the government to toughen the preventive measures. The city is known for having some of the toughest PCR schemes in the country, with the time gap between PCR tests going from 72 hours earlier this year, to 48, and now every 24 hours.

The province uses an electronic Covid-pass system, the Guangdong Health Code (GHC), known as Yuekang, to monitor citizens’ movements and infection status. The province’s residents rely on the Yuekang apps installed on their phones to get through their daily lives, flashing QR codes to get into enclosed areas such as their residences or workplace. They are let in only if a recent PCR test shows they are Covid-negative and that they have not come in close contact with patients.

The Yuekang platform encountered a technical glitch on August 31, with the system crashing entirely in Shenzhen for several hours, making it impossible for residents to get PCR tests and travel around the city.

A hashtag #ShenzhenPCRtestbreakdown circulated on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Users expressed their frustration with the unexpected scenario, complaining how their work was put on hold because they were not able to renew their “green” Covid-free status on the Yuekang system.

Internet users in Shenzhen complain about the breakdown of the health code system on Weibo.

“People in Shenzhen are too enthusiastic about the PCR tests, paralyzing the health code system.”
Internet users in Shenzhen complain about the breakdown of the health code system on Weibo. “People in Shenzhen are too enthusiastic about the PCR tests, paralyzing the health code system.” © Observers
The second post: “Amazing. It is required to have a PCR test within 24 hours, and it’s been an hour since the breakdown happened.”
The second post: “Amazing. It is required to have a PCR test within 24 hours, and it’s been an hour since the breakdown happened.” © Observers
“Are we still doing the tests today? Guess the system is going to be madly crowded later.”
“Are we still doing the tests today? Guess the system is going to be madly crowded later.” © Observers
Residents in Nanshan District, Shenzhen, lined up for PCR tests on September 1.
Residents in Nanshan District, Shenzhen, lined up for PCR tests on September 1. © Observers

Green Code required for entry

Our Observer Yujun (not her real name) explained to us how the Health Code system works in Guangdong Province, where Shenzhen is located. She asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Every province in China has its own health code system, and ours is called the Guangdong Health Code (GHC), or Yuekang.

Right now in Shenzhen, as long as you have the green code, you can enter everywhere, with or without vaccination.

The main purpose of the GHC is to track the history of individual people’s movements. For example, you will see a QR code at the entrance if you go to a cinema. You scan it on your phone, and the app sends your location and the time of your visit to the central Yuekang system. Later on, if the location confirms a case of Covid, your visit will show up in their database, and your personal Yuekang code might turn yellow or red. 

However, given that the geolocating function on the app might not always be accurate, it happens quite often that the data goes wrong, and your code turns yellow or red by mistake.

Interfaces of the Yuekang Code app by Yujun.
Interfaces of the Yuekang Code app by Yujun. © Observers
This video posted on the Chinese social network Weibo on Aug. 30, 2022, shows residents in Shenzhen lined up to get their PCR tests in the Longgang district after more Covid cases were confirmed. The caption says “The queue is endless. Shenzhen, stay strong!”
This video posted on the Chinese social network Weibo on Aug. 30, 2022, shows residents in Shenzhen lined up to get their PCR tests in the Longgang district after more Covid cases were confirmed. The caption says “The queue is endless. Shenzhen, stay strong!” © Weibo/@蝸牛先生

'How can you expect people to do a PCR test every 24 hours?'

Following the recent escalation of the pandemic in Shenzhen, we spoke with another Observer in the city, Xiaohua (not her real name), who also asked to remain anonymous. She shared with us her daily routine.

I do a test every day after work.

In Shenzhen, the queues for a PCR test are well-organised, but they can be really long.

I had never seen such a long queue when the situation started getting more unstable last week. It must have been at least 1.5 kilometres long. It took me more than an hour to get tested.

Residents in Shenzhen lined up for PCR tests on August 31.
Residents in Shenzhen lined up for PCR tests on August 31. © Observers

PCR has become an essential part of our lives here. For instance, I work in an office building, and if I don’t receive my negative test result on time, I won’t be able to enter the building for work.

In the last few days, as the number of confirmed cases started going up again, security officers in the building even started checking the location logs on our Yuekang apps system to see if we have been to high-risk regions.

Screenshot of the green code on the Yuekang Code system by Yujun.
Screenshot of the green code on the Yuekang Code system by Yujun. © Observers

But how can you expect people to do a PCR test every 24 hours? We are human beings, and since we are human beings, it’s inevitable for us to make a mistake. There will definitely be a time when we simply forget to do a test, or don’t manage to do one, yet we still need to go to work the next day.

It’s not that people don’t do their tests on purpose, sometimes you just make a mistake.

'People are using fake codes to get around the rules'

Linqian (not her real name), also from Shenzhen, told the Observers the conditions that temporarily crippled her mobility on August 31, the day of the outage.

My Yuekang status suddenly turned yellow. I had to get a PCR test so my code would turn green again. 

I was in a remote location when it happened. The app told me to go to a yellow-status testing centre but it was a long way away. With my yellow code, I couldn’t board the metro or take a taxi.

In the end, I used a fake code to get a cab.  With all the restrictions, many people are using fake codes to get around the rules.

I knew the Yuekang system was down, and that many people were waiting hours to get a PCR test. I thought I’d have to wait a long time too but it wasn’t a long wait in the end.

My negative result went into the app, but it took four hours for my status to turn back to green. It always takes a few hours. 

And I hadn’t even been to the place where they claimed I had close contact with the virus! I have no idea how this happened.

After the glitch was restored, residents who didn’t manage to get a test on time were enraged at the testing station as they would not be able to head to work without a green code tomorrow.
After the glitch was restored, residents who didn’t manage to get a test on time were enraged at the testing station as they would not be able to head to work without a green code tomorrow. © Observers