Testing Uncertainty: Chance, Play, and Humour as Pandemic Response
This essay examines responses to the uncertainties brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Living with—and in a state of—uncertainty in China is hardly new. From uncertainty over the individualised risks of pollution (Tilt 2013) to uncertainties about the spaces available to civil society organisations (Pan 2020) or whether one’s chicken really is organic (Wang 2020; Lora-Wainwright 2013), the capacity to navigate uncertainty is a generalised necessity. However, we suggest that during the pandemic, novel types of uncertainty elicited novel modes of coping, which drew on humour, art, and chance to relate to—and sometimes differentiate oneself as the subject of luck in—an ongoing situation of uncertainty.
While the pandemic has been replete with scientific, moral, and normative uncertainties, in this essay, we reflect on how people responded to uncertainty within environments that were monotonous but still laden with risk. As researchers based in China at various points during the pandemic, testing became part of the fabric of our daily lives, both in our physical and our online environments. Thus, our inquiry into responsiveness comes in the form of stories about testing infrastructure, all of which originate in the second half of the Covid-19 pandemic in China. By 2022, there was greater familiarity with the pandemic infrastructure and, as such, greater space for response. Across the examples covered in this essay, we are interested in the questions of how people navigate, what motivates the shape of responses, and how it feels to be in a relationship of response to uncertainty, rather than seeking certainty from what could be known.
Our examples are drawn from two of the co-authors’ experiences of everyday PCR-testing life, and from the online worlds that grew up around the novel language and practices brought about by testing, waiting, and managing the new landscapes of both physical and social pandemic spaces. The first, which introduces a practice unfolding within PCR queues, makes a game of testing chance. The second takes concerns about the fate of pets whose owners were quarantined and reincorporates those animals into the body-politic of subjects being tested for Covid-19. The final example takes us out of the home into public space, where uncertainty is spatial, atmospheric, and temporal.
Becoming a Small Leader
Mass PCR testing is hugely expensive. To ease the costs of nationwide testing in the first year of the pandemic, in August 2020, China’s State Council introduced specifications for what became known as the mixed-tube nucleic acid test (核酸混采检测/混检) or ‘pooled testing’. In practice, this meant the pharyngeal swabs of between 10 and 20 people would be collected in a single tube for processing for nucleic acid detection (State Council 2020). In January 2022, these specifications were adjusted to allow for ‘20-in-1 mixed collection’—a shift aimed at further decreasing the burdensome costs of testing. The mixed-tube nucleic acid tests were largely free in major cities considered ‘risky’, such as Shenzhen, where residents were required to do at least one PCR test a day, either at a local hospital or a normalised nucleic acid testing centre (常态化核酸检测点), to ensure their phone’s health code stayed green and ‘alive’. In other southern cities like Guangzhou and Changsha, people often needed to do at least one PCR test every three to seven days, following the ‘all those in need are tested’ (应检尽检) rule introduced in April 2020 and remaining in effect until December 2022 (Xinhua 2020).
With this frequency of required testing, queuing became an excessively familiar and repetitive part of everyday life for residents of many cities. The mixed-tube test method sped things up, allowing testing centres to screen many people already holding a green health code. How the queue played out on a given day was an unknown element, adding a novel form of uncertainty.
Since mixed-tube testing combines samples from either 10 or 20 people, to organise collection, the health workers administering the tests used the queue itself as a means of counting. Walking down the line, health workers (大白) would hand a new tube to every tenth or twentieth person. Having been handed the tube, it would be that person’s job to pass it on to the health worker who was taking swab samples. With a one-in-10 or one-in-20 chance of being the person to hold the tube, the name ‘small leader’ emerged for this role. Simply being the first in each mixed-test group did not constitute ‘leadership’, but it did confer a sense of being special. It became common to see ‘small leader’ posts on WeChat Friend Circle.
It might have been trivial but becoming the ‘small leader’ was often considered worth sharing on social media, especially during long, boring PCR test queueing. It was sufficiently important that when one of the authors, Han, was charged with handling the test tube, she was asked by a girl behind her: ‘Would you mind if I borrow your tube for a second?’ It was clear that the girl was going to post this photo somewhere, probably with a title like: ‘I am the small leader’ (小队长, in which 队 translates as both ‘team’ and ‘queue’). Some netizens joked that being a ‘small leader’ in the test queue was the biggest job they ever had. Figure 2 captures Han’s experience of being the ‘small leader’, while Figures 3 and 4 show images about the role circling on our WeChat groups and anonymously in meme format.
Testing seems to promise certainty as it produces a binary result: one is infected or is not. However, as a technology of risk management, mixed-tube testing, while significantly speeding up processing for green-code holders, added uncertainty. Unlike the sense of chance associated with becoming a ‘small leader’ of the queueing citizens, this uncertainty remained in the time frame of test results. If a mixed-tube nucleic acid test result was positive, everyone in that group would be required to take another test, this time in a single tube, within 24 hours to confirm which of the group was positive. It was a game of chance—your lot cast in with the other nine or 19 strangers. In the time between being part of a positive mixed-tube test and the return of one’s single-tube test result as negative, the person was marked as ‘mixed-tube test result positive’ in the health code system and could be required to self-isolate. As such, this system embedded a form of shared risk, group surveillance, and associated uncertainty.
This capacity to play with the way pandemic management technologies shaped everyday life appeared in familiar and unexpected places. Testing, with its vagaries and shifting requirements, remained a central site of interpretation. The examples that follow come from Douyin (抖音), a short-video app operating within China with structural similarities to the app known in Europe and North America as TikTok. In this example, those undergoing testing were not humans, but animals.
Animals had played an ambivalent role during early lockdowns and in broad global discussions about whether the virus had jumped from animals to humans and whether it could continue to move between species. Strictly enforced quarantines, including mandatory evacuation of residents during cleaning of apartments, saw stories of health workers killing pets during their owners’ quarantine or animals starving when their owners were suddenly required to isolate away from home. In 2021, a woman from Shangrao, Jiangxi Province, was required to quarantine in a hotel while her flat was disinfected. During that time, her security camera recorded health workers killing her dog, a corgi, with a crowbar. Once she returned from quarantine, she posted the footage online, much to the consternation of pet owners. When local authorities reported that the dog had been the subject of a ‘harmless disposal’ (BBC 2021), images were posted to Weibo (see Figure 5) critically memorialising this ‘harmless disposal’ by depicting the health workers with a triangle symbol above their masks, referencing characters from the hugely popular online series Squid Game. In Squid Game, figures masked with a triangle on their face are of higher rank than everyday ‘players’, but are still required to obey orders, capable of holding guns, and killing players of the game who fail. By referencing their (delimited) power, these Weibo posts commented on the ‘harmless disposal’ by inverting the usual representation of health workers as holding swab sticks, putting wooden bars in their hands—tips bloodied from dispatching cats and dogs, and a corgi lying at the front.
Later, however, as photos of pets wearing masks on their daily walks began to circulate, so too did Douyin clips of children ‘testing’ their household animals. The atmosphere of uncertainty around pets and their pandemic fate had shifted. Circulating as both cute and humorous videos, the ‘daily funnies’ saw children role-playing health workers with their toys and pets, offering them ‘PCR tests’. In Figure 6, the child, having discarded one swab, approaches the face of her pug with another, with no small look of terror on the dog’s face. ‘Be patient Niuniu, your sister is going to nursery soon’, comments the videographer, reassuring the dog—and, by extension, others—that the testing regimes to which he is subject will soon be over. Similarly, as a health worker gently lifts a surgical mask from a dog, the caption asks whether your ‘most loyal friend’, your dog, has had a nucleic acid test. Making companion species part of the rule-following—part of pandemic governance regimes through tests, masks, and encounters with health workers—shifts the relationship between animals and those charged with enforcing pandemic rules and goes some way to rewriting the sometimes-violent expendability of animals in the following of rules.
Humour is not an unusual response to uncertainty, as it allows for distance, indirect commentary, and re-narration. For this reason, it is not surprising that it was deployed in many of the most widely shared videos to express sympathy both with the children, for whom testing regimes had become routine, and the animals on whom ‘testing’ was taking place. To put testing into a child’s world is to make play of a situation that cannot be argued with. But in addition to playfully involving pets for the comfort of children, the animal testing also expands the regime of testing beyond humans. The inclusion of animals within extensive testing regimes became more common in the second half of the pandemic. When an outbreak hit Huzhou, Zhejiang Province, for example, a video was shared of a hippo opening its mouth wide for a swab and receiving half a watermelon as a reward (Koetse 2022), following on from hippo testing in Belgium in 2021 (Mawad and Hu 2021). From fish to hippos, dogs to cats, to widely shared footage of pandas receiving their own PCR tests (iPanda 2022), animal testing entered public consciousness.
Our final example comes from the physical environment of test sites. If people were queuing daily for tests, considerable public space had to be given over to testing sites. In early 2023, a park near Hailing’s home in Shenzhen that had for the past two years served as a Covid-testing site was dismantled overnight. Having been used to test ‘risky’ workers, particularly those working in logistics and public transport, the site had ceased to be a public space. Hailing, who lived near it for many months during the pandemic, knew it as the place to which she had to go to take a test if she received a ‘yellow code’.
The uncertainty here is neither that of chance in the testing queue nor the humour that involves pets to deal with unknown extensions to testing regimes; it is about the atmosphere of place. While the restrictions had vanished suddenly, the park remained quiet. Many people were at home with the virus, isolating and recovering, as the sudden end to restrictions led to widespread infections and few were out in public. Caution, combined with illness, meant that when Hailing visited, there were just three other people making use of the park. Seeing them in the distance, while trying to visit the park ‘normally’, led to a sense of spookiness.
The last time Hailing had visited the park before its dismantling was in late October 2022, when her health code had turned yellow. She had first been registered at the desk (Figure 7, in brown), which when she returned in 2023 was lying on its side. The sign above it, indicating that this was the testing channel for employees working in public transport, was crushed and muddied on the ground. The testing had been done in the large temporary white box at the top right corner of Figure 7, inside which two nurses worked. Revisiting the park, the white box was now empty and what had been a highly regulated and governed space was in disarray.
At the entrance gate, Hailing and her mother found the barricades that once kept the park closed (Figure 8) piled up. The street was quiet and shops had closed again.
The uncertainties here are multiple: there are uncertain responses to the new and unexpected openness, with an all but empty park. A sense of risk continues to pervade the act of ‘being out’ in public space—particularly in such charged spaces following their change of purpose. There are also the remnants of testing infrastructure, now abandoned, marking the presence of the recent, busy testing past. Abandoned infrastructure is sometimes described in its ‘obduracy’ as a rearticulation of ‘distinctions of past and present’ (Schabacher 2018: 144). Rather than playful or creative, this example of an uncertain response to the sudden discontinuity in testing infrastructure marks the space of the uncanny. In the rapid change of policy, reflected in the sudden shift in the possible uses of public space, uncertainty is translated into caution. Hailing and her mother, on visiting the park, found it deserted—its previous purpose still present in remnant form—due to a wave of infections that came after the end of restrictions.
Uncertainty animates feelings of hope and terror (Patel 2007). We might expect that responses to uncertainty are clarity-seeking. However, none of the responses to the uncertainties about Covid-19 testing we have discussed makes any attempt to remove it. Nor do they seek greater accuracy about cases or better numbers from which to estimate risk. Instead, they show us experiences of adjustment and response in the face of an uncertainty that appears as chance or doubt. Whether it is gaining social status by turning one’s task of carrying a test tube into a ‘small leader’ in the queue or sharing a post about one’s child PCR testing their dog on social media, these responses to uncertainty offer us perspectives on what it has meant to manage in conditions of testing uncertainty. In her discussion of responses to uncertainty in early China, Mercedes Valmisa describes adaptation in the Chinese context as ‘not passive resignation but a creative attitude’ (2015: 10). In this sense, we may also see uncertainty as a productive space where alternative social worlds and projects (and perhaps creative forms of ethical response) arise (Povinelli 2011), as people find their way forward in the new uncertainties of post-Covid ‘normality’.
This piece has been produced as part of ‘Moving Data-Moving People: Reorganizing Trust through China’s Social Credit System’, a project funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark / Danmark’s Frie Forskningsfond and hosted at the IT University of Copenhagen and Aalborg University (0133-00089B)
Featured Image: Focal Foto (CC), Flickr.com