I Got Vaccinated for COVID-19 in China via a Slew of Apps, Here's How I Did It

Chen Du

posted on March 8, 2021 3:20 pm

The global push to get vaccinated for Covid-19 is going strong. It is reported that as of March 8th, more than 3 million doses have been administered across 114 countries, at a latest rate of about 8 million daily doses, according to Bloomberg.

The outlet also estimates that China has more than 52 million doses administered, at a daily rate of about 600,000. I got one of those shots just yesterday, and I'm here to tell you about how I did it, via a slew of apps that resulted in a decently pleasant but still a bit techno-chaotic experience.

As is known by tech watchers, China basically skipped the PC internet era and went straight into a decade of prosperous mobile internet. Nowadays, with super apps like WeChat and Alipay, one can basically go anywhere without cash. Things like hailing a cab, ordering food, and in today's case, even registering for getting vaccinated for Covid-19, can be done completely on a smartphone.

There is no doubt a huge demand for Covid-19 vaccines and a relatively short supply at the start of the vaccination rollout in China, as is often the case everywhere else on the planet. Using technology like apps to take in registrations and gain insight on that demand is crucial to securing a smooth rollout.

Nevertheless, that electronic registration process can sometimes be overridden by tedious face-to-face paperwork filing, potentially due to system design flaws, resulting in a slight hassle for parties in the process. I'll get into that later on. There are also huge discrepancies across China in terms of vaccine supply and rollout plans, so I'll stick to what my experience was for the first dose, administered in Beijing's Chaoyang District.

Chaoyang was one of the first districts in this city that began a mass rollout to it residents. Working for a media company headquartered in Chaoyang while actually working from home in Xicheng District for the past couple of months, I am technically eligible to get vaccinated in both districts. But Chaoyang was the first to get me a shot.

Around late January, my employer was notified by the local "jiedao" or neighborhood committee office (a base level administrative body) that we are getting the vaccines in an upcoming batch, which is among the earliest batches, despite many of my colleagues don't reside in the neighborhood and some even don't have Beijing Hukou (a form of legal residentship). There seemed to have been no fixed restriction on applicants' identity that I am aware of, so I told my wife, who's also working from home as a freelancer, to sign up with me as well.

The apps this registration processed used were in fact what's know as "WeChat mini programs" in China, or basically web apps that reside within WeChat, made with web technologies that are similar to HTML5 and CSS. I won't need to download the mini program from any app store since I, like most people in China, already have WeChat on my phone, and it is only a search or a QR code scan away.

The first mini program I used is called Jinsong Vaccine (劲松疫苗), made by the Jinsong jiedao where my office is located. What's nice about it, according to a very curious me, is that it even shows 8,784 people have signed up before me, giving a nice picture of how well the rollout was going.

The mini program, henceforth identified as the "Jinsong app", first displays a number of pre-existing conditions that make potential registrants ineligible for the vaccine, like age, pregnancy, recent vaccination history, etc. After that, it pulls up a form to let me fill in my name, national ID number, and various other contact information that is sufficient for the municipal government to get in touch with me if something's known to be wrong with the batch or myself. 

Interestingly, the Jinsong app has a user interface similar to a typical e-commerce mobile app, where my successful registration would show up as an order on the platform. This is likely due to that although WeChat's an instant messenger at its core, its mini program has been known as a vibrant platform to build a e-commerce business, and developer tools are widely available . It would make sense for the local governments with an urgent need such as vaccinating residents to use the platform and these tools to get the rollout going without worrying about tech sophistication.

My wife and I finished the registration early February, before the Chinese New Year holiday. It seemed like while other essential workers like food delivery couriers were hard at work to earn the bonus during the holiday, the vaccinators, who are mostly medical professionals working for hospitals but commissioned by by the local governments, were not. 

The scheduling on the vaccinators' part had some sort of randomness involved, I suspected, as my wife was notified being put on the list for the first dose due late February, with specific time slots she could choose from, while I never got a text message from anybody regarding my scheduling, despite the fact that we signed up at the same time, and we're in the same household and age group. But that turned out to be not much of a big deal after all, which I'll also get into later.

Her original scheduling was scrapped because of insufficient vaccine supply. It is since this moment that we begin to experience some hassle and tech-related inconsistencies, likely due to the nature of the registration platform and the whole rollout being scrambled together in a urgent fashion. My wife was told via text that her vaccination was postponed but there was no words whatsoever on rescheduling. It was only when she opened the Jinsong app a few days ago we found that she was rescheduled for March 7th. We called and got confirmation that we can come anytime during the day. Meanwhile, there was still no words for my slot.

With nothing to lose, and the fact that Beijing has an effective control on the spread of the virus taken into consideration, I decided to go with her yesterday. To my surprise, I opened the Jinsong app on my phone on the subway train, saw that the line was only about 5 minutes long, and actually successfully re-registered to get a shot on the same day. I did feel that my previous registration was in vain, but there's nothing that I can complain about. The vaccines were free anyway, in our case.

As is often the situation these days, we are required to show our health code to get in. If you are not aware, health code are integrated systems developed by governments across China that congregate data from health authorities, telecom operators and other means to decide the infection risk of a person. Most major cities and provinces likely have such a system of their own, which can lead to incompatibility, and troubles for travelers, but that would be a story for another day.

What's worth noting is that this time, when we were trying to get into the makeshift vaccination center, the security guards required us to use the mini program developed by China's State Council, the national government, rather than the more commonly used Beijing Jiankangbao, run by the municipal government. The point of this, according to the guards, was that the State Council app has the ability to tap into 3 major telecom providers' database and see our travel history for the past 14 days. The impression I had was that those who traveled to or from out of town as recently as within 2 weeks might be rejected, though during my time there I did not see anyone being turned away at the door.

The vaccination center forbid photos and video taping, but it had fences set up to form a snake-shaped line, with 1 meter markings on the floor so people can take the visual cue and maintain social distance. Propaganda is visible within the facility, providing information on the vaccine being used, including its efficacy, known side effects and their low rate of happening. We were not told which company made the vaccine, but I assume that they are from Sinovac since they are what's known as inactivated vaccine, and the company makes the majority of that type in China.

After about 10 minutes of in the line (not bad considering the 5 minute wait time claim), we went through two different triage stations, signing documents confirming we were honest with our claim of no pre-existing conditions. 

The vaccinator asked me again on some of the info I already filled in twice in the Jinsong app (the first time in early February, then on the subway train en route), including my ID number, phone number and home address, and typed them into her computer. I asked if she already has my information since I submitted them a long time ago, and got the usual response from people navigating spotty technology: "this thing sometimes doesn't work well."

But the vaccinator did have me in awe when she quizzed me yet again regarding if I had other vaccination recently (I did not.) "Sir, you had a flu shot in Sanjianfang (a place in Beijing), in...2009." We laughed about it, but I was genuinely surprised that she, or the system behind her, knew something I don't or honestly have long forgotten about. That was when I was still a sophomore in college, and my mother, a retired medical professional who worked at the infirmary of a big corporation, used to take care of the entire family's vaccination by giving the shots at home (her supply was generally from her former employers' leftover.)

After traige stations we were sent directly standalone rooms to take the vaccine. Again the nurses in those rooms repeated the same questions that we were asked about at least three times during the app sign up and repetitive paperwork filing process. However, this time I did see my ID number on the nurse's screen, with what appeared like a pre-assigned vaccine serial number or batch number attached to my name. 

After the jab we were told to stay at the facility so that potential early negative reaction can be observed and quickly dealt with. During this step of the process another web app made by the Chaoyang District (rather than the Jinsong app) was involved. We were told to scan a QR code and register on the Chaoyang app, which will be used to clock our 30 minute observation period.

This is not the first time I've encountered this Chaoyang app. Back in early February we were given 2 separate QR codes that direct us to dual-register on this app as well as the Jinsong app that eventually did most of the heavy lifting. I have no idea why the Chaoyang app was largely replaced by the Jinsong app for vaccination nor the reason it was being used again now that we have gotten the jab. The logical explanation is that the Chaoyang app has a feature for clocking observation while the Jinsong app does not.

But that's less of an issue, since the Chaoyang app was not actually clocking us within the app anyway. The way the field officials managed us was that they asked us to show a screenshot of us clocking in (shown below) when we were supposed to clock out after 30 minutes. The app basically did nothing. They could've just handed us a piece of paper with a timestamp. It might even be more environmental friendly than keeping the web servers up for an app that is not being put to actual use.

To further illustrate my point: right before we exit the facility, the officials did schedule us for the second dose, not on the Jinsong app or Chaoyang app or any app though. The date was actually on a piece of paper, seen below.

This is essentially what we are facing right now: in Silicon Valley they say "there's an app for that." Meanwhile in China, there has to be an app for that, although people might not be using it. 

All in all, this vaccination experience has been, like I say earlier, generally pleasant but a bit techno-chaotic at different key points during the process. Again, this experience is mine and your mileage may vary. I am confident that China is among the world's countries with the quickest vaccine rollouts, and the tech solutions being used here are some of the world's best, albeit they do offer some lessons for other countries exploring tech options to learn, as you can at least see in my case. 

I would love to discuss my vaccination experience in Beijing with you on social media. You can reach me on Twitter @lichtspektrum.