Getting around in China without a smartphone is a difficult task in 2020, and this has been a particular problem for the country’s elderly population. It has caused numerous altercations as people trying to get home or use public transport are turned away because they cannot show a digital health code that has become so common in the country. Now one railway station in the eastern city of Wuxi is trying to help. Chinese netizens are applauding the station for setting up a special help desk for people without health codes. Problems have been building up for seniors who eschew smartphones, making them unable to show a coloured QR code that has become a prevalent means of controlling the movement of people in China during the Covid-19 pandemic. This has led to people being turned away from public transport and residential communities. How the QR code conquered China In August, an elderly man in the northeastern city of Harbin was eventually escorted off a bus by a police officer because he did not have a smartphone. When he was unable to present a health code, he was scolded by other passengers. That same month in Dalian, another northeastern city, an elderly man was stopped from entering a subway station when he appeared to not know what a health code was. An argument with subway staffers ensued. A different altercation in March even resulted in a fist fight. A worker at a neighbourhood checkpoint in a small city near Harbin got into a fight with an elderly man who could not show a health code to enter the area because he did not have a smartphone. Incidents like these have repeatedly cropped up on social media, triggering widespread discussion. So when the Wuxi railway station posted a picture of a sign for its new help desk, netizens were quick to praise the effort. The post received more than 197,000 likes and a related hashtag was the top trending topic on Weibo on Friday morning. About one in eight passengers who pass through the railway station either do not have a smartphone, use a feature phone or do not have WeChat on their phones, a railway station staff member told Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. That is about 2,000 people every day, he said. At the new help desk, both staff and volunteers will help these people sign up for health codes or get a paper pass if they do not have a smartphone. Health codes have become an essential part of life in China during the pandemic. The codes are generated in mini programs available through Tencent Holdings’ WeChat or Alipay, which is owned by Alibaba Group Holding affiliate Ant Financial. Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post . The codes are supposed to indicate the chance that someone has come in contact with the virus by using a combination of self-reported personal information and big data, including geolocation data from telecom companies and other information from government agencies. A green code means a person is able to move about freely, but a yellow or red code means the user should quarantine for seven or 14 days respectively. Whether the codes are effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus is still up for debate. But for the people who have to use them, the codes can have a big impact. They are frequently used to grant access to a wide range of public areas, including restaurants, shopping centres and cinemas. Even before the pandemic, China’s increased reliance on smartphones was becoming a problem for some senior citizens. In 2018, a 67-year-old man got into an argument with staff at a supermarket in Jixi, Heilongjiang province, when they refused to accept cash. It has become common for some vendors to only accept mobile payments from either WeChat or Alipay, China’s dominant payment apps. The man eventually tried to leave with his grapes before being stopped by a security guard. The customer said he was humiliated, but a guard later helped the man pay with cash. The pandemic has only increased China’s reliance on mobile devices, forcing many seniors to get familiar with new technology. But a large portion of China’s elderly population remains offline. As of June this year, only 10.3 per cent of China’s 940 million internet users were 60 years old or older, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC). So while some 97 million people online in China are at least 60 years old, that is less than 40 per cent of the 250 million people who were in that age group at the end of 2019. Some state-run media outlets have also started calling attention to this issue, saying society should not wait for seniors to be left behind by technology. Some cities have also adopted health codes printed on paper, like the railway station in Wuxi. While these efforts might finally be getting help to the less technologically inclined, some people wonder why these efforts were not rolled out sooner. “They should have done this from the beginning. Now they make it sound like a great deed,” one Weibo user commented about the new help desk in Wuxi.