China's Health Tracking Codes Help Lift Lockdowns, Flatten Infection Curve

China's Health Tracking Codes Help Lift Lockdowns, Flatten Infection Curve

The system of health tracking codes, recently introduced by Chinese authorities, allows people from COVID-19 epicenters, like the central Hubei province, leave the areas and gradually return to work in other regions as the number of new infections in the country is declining

MOSCOW (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 25th March, 2020) The system of health tracking codes, recently introduced by Chinese authorities, allows people from COVID-19 epicenters, like the central Hubei province, leave the areas and gradually return to work in other regions as the number of new infections in the country is declining.

The first health code system emerged in the city of Hangzhou in the Zhejiang province, where Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is based. As part of the government's efforts to allow healthy people leave their homes and slowly resume normal life amid the deadly COVID-19 outbreak, the Yuhang district of Hangzhou first unveiled the system on February 7.

People can apply for a code to indicate their health status by signing up in a system through popular Chinese mobile apps, such as Alipay or WeChat and filling in personal information, including national ID card numbers, mobile phone numbers and current addresses.

The system, which tracks user location and information about areas where COVID-19 cases have been confirmed, issues a health code for each applicant. The codes come in three colors � green, yellow and red � depending on the extent of a user's possible contacts with confirmed COVID-19 cases.

People with green health codes are allowed to leave their homes and enter supermarkets and stores, while those with yellow or red health codes are required to continue self-isolation for at least 14 days before their codes could be changed to green.


According to reports from the official Xinhua news agency, the health code system in the Yuhang district was developed by a group of technical experts led by top software engineers from Alipay, a mobile payment service provided by Alibaba.

The system won wide applause in China and many Chinese cities and provinces decided to introduce their local health codes, too.

Jiang Dayi, an Alipay software engineer who led the team to develop the health code system, said his team had to work over 40 hours without sleep to help other Chinese cities and provinces develop their local versions of health codes, according to the report from Xinhua.

By the end of February, the hard-hit regions like the Hubei province also began to introduce their own local health code systems.

After the initial successful experiences with health code systems in cities like Hangzhou, the central government in Beijing introduced a national health code system by the end of February.

According to the introduction webpage of the national health code system, users could prove their health status as to whether they have contracted COVID-19 or became a close contact of those whose infection was confirmed by verifying their personal identification information. The system uses public health information and travel data from aviation and railway systems to evaluate a user's health status. The introduction page stressed that the health code system would strictly protect the user's personal information.

As part of China's efforts to take advantage of the digital data of Chinese citizens to help fight the COVID-19 outbreak, the top three Chinese mobile carriers � China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom � have introduced a service to allow users to obtain a "telecom big data travel card," which could help prove that they have not visited areas with massive COVID-19 infections recently.

According to the user manual of the "telecom big data travel card," users can obtain their recent personal travel records for the previous 14 days, with details on which cities and countries they have stayed for over four hours.

Under existing rules, users who have visited the Hubei province in the previous 14 days for over four hours will receive a "red card." Those who have visited the 58 countries where the COVID-19 outbreak is serious will receive a "yellow card." Users who have not visited these high-risk regions receive a "green card."


For Miya Feng and her family, the health codes became an important method for them to prove their health status as they tried to leave the Hubei province and return to work.

As the outbreak of the virus was contained in the epicenter and neighboring cities in the Hubei province in recent weeks, Feng and her parents, who were stuck in their hometown of Jingmen, located about 150 miles west of Wuhan, for over two months, took the first opportunity to leave and try to return to Ningbo for work on Tuesday.

Feng applied for health codes in both the Hubei province and Ningbo, located in the Zhejiang province, for herself and her parents.

"When I first applied for the Hubei health codes, the color of my code was gray for the first 14 days. After that, it turned green. The first health code I received in February from Ningbo was red. The code only turned green after the outbreak in Hubei became under control in March," Feng said in an interview with Sputnik.

According to a directive issued by local authorities in the Hubei province, the lockdown measures would be lifted gradually by allowing people outside of Wuhan to leave the province as long as they have a green Hubei health code by Wednesday.

Residents in Wuhan would be allowed to leave the city by April 8 with a green Hubei health code, the directive added.

In addition to obtaining the health codes from the Hubei province, Feng had to make sure that her family could also obtain green health codes in Ningbo to avoid troubles upon arrival.

"I have contacted the local community committees in Ningbo. They told me that as long as we have the green Ningbo health code, we will not be required to be self-isolated for 14 days," Feng said.


After driving for more than nine hours, Feng and her parents decided to take a break at a rest stop in the city of Huzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province, which was about three hours away from their final destination � the city of Ningbo.

However, when Feng's father wanted to use the bathroom at the rest stop in Huzhou, a security guard at the entrance refused to let him in. The guard explained that his superiors told him not to allow anyone from the Hubei province to enter as part of the efforts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

"We had all the proper health codes from both Hubei and Ningbo. They also measured our temperatures. Why cannot we be allowed to use the bathroom? Is it because he saw the license plate of our car was from Hubei province? It is discrimination against people from Hubei," Feng said.

After her family's experiences at the rest stop in Huzhou, Feng had some doubts about whether residents of Ningbo would be as welcoming to her family because they came from the Hubei province and their car carried a Hubei license plate.

"Ningbo has always left a good impression in my heart. I hope we do not face any discrimination like this," she said.

While Feng said she was not overly concerned about her privacy as long as the health codes could help her move around freely and avoid discrimination, human rights advocates have raised concerns over possible privacy violations.

"While #China's collection of data + use of tech tools, such as the Health Code, is particularly abusive given its political & legal context, even in democratic countries, surveillance powers can undermine democratic freedoms. That's why we need stringent privacy laws," Maya Wang, the senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote in a post on Twitter last week.

�Despite the privacy concerns, more countries opt for using tracking data to stem the spread of the deadly virus.

For example, South Korea, where the number of new cases has been showing a decline, uses tracking data to form maps allowing citizens to see where COVID-19 patients are located.

Russia plans to use tracking data for monitoring social distancing, too. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that tapping into cellphone location data to track people who have come into contact with those who tested positive for COVID-19 does not constitute a rights violation.

The Washington Post has reported, citing the White House officials, that the United States is holding talks with tech giants, including Google and Facebook, on measures to use smartphone location data for combating the spread of COVID-19.

Moreover, international mobile network companies association GSMA is mulling the creation of a system to track individuals through mobile phones and share the data worldwide, according to The Guardian, which cited a GSMA official. The system, if created, could allow authorities to trace those infected with COVID-19.