Dispatches from the motherland: Neighborhood Covid testing

I’m starting a thing where I try to write 500 words daily (ambitious, I know) about what I see and who I meet while I’m living here in mainland China.

Normally I like to just snap photos and post them on Instagram, but the exercise of writing from memory is much more challenging, like I have to observe things much harder and keep a notebook so I don’t get details wrong. Case in point: in this post below, I initially wrote about a white tent and white PPE, when actually both were blue.


  1. Write 500 words.
  2. Write every day.
  3. Write freely. (Don’t go back and edit.)

Well, here goes nothing!

Every few days, the building compound I live in holds a mass Covid-testing event. A megaphone broadcasts a recording of a woman’s voice. Sometimes the megaphone is perched on the handlebars of someone’s bicycle. Other times it’s worn on a sash across a worker’s body. The voice summons residents from Buildings 20 and 22 to come down and do their Covid test. After ten minutes, she moves to another corner of the compound and starts calling 24 and 26, and so on and so forth. Really it doesn’t matter what order we go down to do our tests. I don’t even know how or if they track which residents have gone to get their tests and which haven’t.

There is a blue tent-covering in the middle of the quad outside. Beneath it is a table and two stools. In normal times, this setup is vacant, but when the staff from the neighborhood committee come to run these tests, dressed in baby blue PPE, two of them sit at the table with an array of test tubes, swabs, and hazardous waste disposal bins laid out on the table, while another two staff members stand nearby with cellphones ready to scan.

To save money (I think), each resident doesn’t get their own test tube for their own test; samples from ten people go into one test tube. The staff with the scanners scan a test tube, give it to the first person in the group of ten, then scan each person’s QR code in the Health Code app so they can get tested. 

The test is a long swab inside the cheek. Some of the testers go further back into the throat, but most kind of do a light, perfunctory swipe on both sides of the tongue. They wear gloves. Between each test, they pump some hand sanitizer onto their gloves, do a perfunctory hand-washing motion, then peel open the individually wrapped swab for the next person to test.

Sometimes the tests are at 6pm, or they’re at 9am on the weekends. The megaphone is pretty annoying. My windows aren’t soundproof, so closing them makes no difference. But it’s nice to see the neighbors come out. Some get their tests before they go off to run errands, like I am about to do. Others come downstairs briefly, as though this might be the only time they get out of their apartments. In Shanghai, I rarely see people with obvious physical disabilities, but my building compound seems to have several amputees (missing legs) and some people with their backs hunched over. 

Outside of this scheduled mass-testing event, you can get tests anywhere else in the city, at any hour. All of China’s map apps show these Covid-testing stations, along with their operating hours (each one has different times). There are 10 within 500 meters of me. The closest one is at the entrance of my building compound. Proof of a negative test from within the last 48 or 72 hours is required on public transit, in public venues and buildings, and also in restaurants and other places. There appears to be no vaccine requirement to enter buildings here, unlike in Hong Kong.

2 responses to “Dispatches from the motherland: Neighborhood Covid testing”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: