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Shanghai metro sparks Covid panic with festive red QR codes

<i>Ding Ting/Xinhua/Getty Images</i><br/>It's common in China for subway passengers to use a QR code for payments
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images
Ding Ting/Xinhua/Getty Images
It's common in China for subway passengers to use a QR code for payments

By Jessie Yeung and CNN’s Beijing Bureau, CNN Business

A Chinese subway system’s attempt to spread some Lunar New Year cheer backfired over the weekend, as panicked passengers mistook seasonal red QR codes for positive Covid tests.

Chinese social media users reported Sunday that the Shanghai metro’s QR code — which passengers scan when they enter and exit stations -— had changed color from its usual black to red, according to state-run news outlet The Paper.

It sparked terror in many passengers, and for good reason. For the past two years, a red QR code in China has meant that you have — or are suspected to have — Covid-19.

“When I saw it this morning, I thought my health code turned red,” one user commented on the Twitter-like platform Weibo. “At the station exit, I thought about life for a long time, I thought I was going to be taken away.”

Many provinces and cities in the country use a color-based “health code” system to control people’s movements and curb the spread of Covid. Residents each have a smart phone app that shows their personal QR health code: green for healthy, yellow for close contacts, and red for confirmed or suspected cases.

Even a handful of positive cases can spark strict lockdowns and mass testing in China, one of the few places in the world clinging to a zero-Covid approach, which aims to stamp out all cases within its borders. Earlier this month, the city of Yuzhou in Henan province, home to around 1.2 million residents, was placed under lockdown after it reported three asymptomatic cases.

The Shanghai metro issued a statement Sunday clarifying that its red QR code had nothing to do with Covid -— but was rather the metro’s attempt “to welcome the coming of the Year of the Tiger and create a traditional festive atmosphere,” according to The Paper.

It apologized for causing any inconvenience, and switched back to the usual black QR code later on Sunday.

Red is traditionally a celebration color for Lunar New Year, which falls on February 1 this year. During the celebrations, known as Spring Festival in China, people decorate their homes in red ornaments and banners, wear red clothing, and hand out “hongbao,” or red pockets with monetary gifts inside.

The announcement was met with mostly lighthearted relief on social media. “I was shocked when I saw it, and instantly opened my health code to check,” one user posted, along with a laughing emoji. Another user joked: “Did it wake you up instantly?”

Some users criticized the metro for shortsightedness, one person calling the QR code a “major design mistake.”

But others took a more somber note, reflecting on how drastically the world has changed since the pandemic, to the point where a color can inspire such immediate fear.

“It’s sad, though,” one user wrote. “Before, Lunar New Year was always red, but after the pandemic a red code has a different meaning. I feel like I’ve forgotten the original symbolism.”

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