Eight Hi-Tech Strategies Learnt from China’s Coronavirus Containment
A pandemic is an epidemic (a sudden increase in the number of cases of a disease) that are spread over several countries or continents. COVID-19 is now on every continent (except Antarctica) in multiple countries. “So far, the World Health Organization hasn’t referred to this as a pandemic, although many epidemiologists, myself included, are treating it as one,” says Dr Seema Yasmin, director of the Stanford University Health Communication Initiative.
This is no longer a China problem, this is a global problem, and with deaths in South Korea, Japan, Iran, Italy, US, Germany, France, Spain, UK, Switzerland, Netherlands and Canada, it’s not looking good.
What is good is that the number of new cases in China is decreasing steadily since the beginning of February. This means China has proven that containment is possible, and China is fast becoming the safest place to be. Unfortunately, the number of new cases outside China is rising fast. Cases are doubling in Europe every four days, which means Europe alone could have over 200 times the number of cases in a month and around a million in 2-3 months if it’s not contained properly.
At a conservative fatality rate of 2-3% (it seems much higher than this in Iran between 9 and 16%), that could be 20,000 deaths in Europe in a few months. In Northern Italy, 10% of medical staff have been infected. Italy can be considered the main source of the European outbreak, and now Germany, France and Spain are close behind (6 or 7 days behind to be precise). The US, UK, The Netherlands, Switzerland and Canada are close behind this second group (4 to 5 days behind), with the same growth curve meaning that all those countries could be at the same level as Italy in 10 to 12 days. Every week this goes unconfined, the number of infections grows almost 4 times, and containment is not easy, but it is possible. Panic is not useful, swift action is.
According to the World Health Organization, “The speed with which China detected the outbreak, isolated the virus, sequenced the genome, and shared it with WHO and the world are very impressive, and beyond words. So is China’s commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries. In many ways, China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response, and it’s not an exaggeration.” And it’s true, China’s efforts are unprecedented in its response to this outbreak; from building 2 hospitals in under 10 days to locking down an entire city to rapid national coordination of public action. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of pressure on the WHO not to praise China for its efforts, but the WHO remains firm, responding, “I know there is a lot of pressure on WHO when we appreciate what China is doing but because of pressure we should not fail to tell the truth. We should tell the truth and that’s the truth.”
But it’s not just the Chinese government that has taken action. Volunteers, for example, have joined the medical forces. Large tech giants are donating to support the recovery. It seems the whole of China is unifying against the virus. Maintaining a functioning society in this time of crisis is critical. Results of a recent survey about business in China after the outbreak of over 100 companies were encouraging: “most CEOs are rethinking their business models and making positive adjustments. More than 20% of founders try to find new ideas and breakthrough points from the dilemma.” They said “we see a new direction”, and “short-term setback, medium-term positive.” Zhang Liaoyuan, the founder of the Three Squirrels, China’s favorite snack brand, says, “although we are reluctant to deal with the situation, the crisis is organic, just a test. The greatest responsibility of enterprises to society is to be able to run a good business under any difficult condition.”
Beyond simply telling people the obvious — to wash their hands, stop touching their face and wear face masks — what can other countries learn from China’s efforts to contain the virus and hopefully stop it from becoming a full-blown global pandemic?
1 – Fill the skies with drones
Drones in China right now are sharing information on a loudspeaker, spraying disinfectant, delivering packages and taking people’s temperatures. The temperature measurement is done by using infrared thermal imaging technology and is not only more accurate than a human but also enhances the efficiency and speeds up the process of evacuation of community personnel. At the same time, it also reduces the close contact between community workers and residents and reduces the risk of secondary infection.
DJI created a 10Mil RMB fund to fight the coronavirus, funding drone-enabled disinfection and protocols. XAG, China’s No. 1 agriculture drone tech company set up a 50M RMB fund to allow drones to be used for disinfection in remote areas.
In what has now become routine, at 9 am on February 6, a drone flying to the center for disease control in Xinchang county successfully completed the whole process of flight transportation, marking the completion of the country’s first anti-epidemic “urban air transport channel”. On the same day in Wuhan, a device set off from JD logistics station, avoiding vehicles and pedestrians, and successfully delivering medical supplies to Wuhan No. 9 Hospital. Soon, Zhejiang Xinchang People’s Hospital took the lead in using drones to transport samples for examination. This was the world’s first-ever nationwide application of drone delivery in a medical setting. These drones can automatically transport up to four kilograms of supplies between two unmanned stations without human operation during the entire flight. Unmanned delivery greatly reduces the risk of couriers and users being exposed to cross-infection.
In order to strengthen disinfection during the outbreak, more and more towns have begun to use agricultural plant protection drones to carry out disinfection operations. The use of drones spraying disinfectant makes up for the lack of equipment and manpower in epidemic prevention and control. In the Huji town of Heze in Shandong province, villagers used only two plant-protection planes to disinfect and spray about 480,000 square meters of the village in less than an afternoon.
Could other countries buy a whole load of drones and utilize the protocols from China to do the same?
2 – Release the robots
Hospitals in Beijing, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Hubei and Hunan already have zero contact distribution server robots. Medical staff put items on the robot, the robots can go to the patient’s door, the patient hears the robot’s voice and receives the items. Then the robot automatically returns to the nurse station where it is disinfected and can continue delivery. The average robot can provide contact-free delivery service for 20 wards in some hospitals.
On February 12, the first cup of Luckin unmanned coffee was made and the first Luckin unmanned coffee machine “ruiji” was put into use at the Liu72 hospital in Wuhan. No contact, free of charge. Luckin officially announced that the “ruibuy” unmanned coffee machine will also successively enter Wuhan Union Hospital, Tongji Hospital, Hannan District Hospital of traditional Chinese medicine until the outbreak is completely over, and continue to provide free coffee for medical workers. Luckin competitor HeyTea now uses robots to take food out of a cabinet, implementing “no contact takeout food”.
In Zibo, Shandong province, on Feb 10, a logistics company conducted its first trial run of a driverless delivery vehicle loaded with nearly a ton of fresh vegetables. After automatically stopping and unloading at the designated location, the unmanned vehicle automatically returns to the departure point to complete 4 consecutive vegetable deliveries. The unmanned delivery vehicle has a range of 150 kilometers and can deliver more than 10 tons of vegetables a day. During the outbreak, driverless cars complete 24 deliveries every 30 minutes, greatly reducing the burden of the front-line delivery staff. Zero contact distribution, self-driving freight, robo-taxis and other forms of business that have been discussed for a long time in autonomous driving circles have now entered the public eye in China.
Are other countries ready to use robots in this way?
3 – Bring on the biotech
A medical company (999) has already released a new food line of “medicinal” noodles with immune-boosting ingredients that are supposed to help prevent the coronavirus. Car manufacturers (BYD & Baojun) and iPhone manufacturers (Foxconn & Changying Precision) are churning out face masks faster than face mask manufacturers. This outbreak is increasing government and capital investment in the biomedical and medical services industries, especially in medical technology. Four days after the stock market opened this year, the biggest gainers were pharmaceutical businesses, medical device services, biological products and chemical pharmaceuticals, all up more than 10%.
Online consultations have gone from being non-existent to being a new norm during the outbreak. According to the data of Ali Health, even before the end of January, the total number of visitors to the online free clinic exceeded 2.8 million, and the number of doctors exceeded 1,000. Online medical service platforms such as Dingxiangyisheng (丁香医生), Haodaifuzaixian (好大夫在线)，Pinganhaoyisheng (平安好医生) and Weiyi (微医) launched online diagnosis services for coronavirus symptoms to avoid false-positive visits to hospitals. Dingxiangyuan（丁香园), the largest community of medical professionals in China, has taken on the role to update outbreak news every hour.
Damo Academy, Alibaba’s future-driven research institute, can now test Coronavirus infection with AI analytics at 96% accuracy by looking at a CT scan. Researchers said they had trained the AI model with data from more than 5,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and that the system can identify differences in CT scans between patients infected COVID-19 and those with ordinary viral pneumonia with an accuracy of 96%. The new algorithm will alleviate pressure on hospitals, completing the recognition process in 20 seconds, rather than the 5 to 15 minutes it takes a doctor to do the same.
How quickly could other countries implement these kinds of technologies?
4 – Keep the kids at home
More than 20 provinces including Guangdong, Jiangsu and Henan joined the “home-schooling” program, with more than 10,000 primary and secondary schools and 5 million students attending classes via live streaming. This was unprecedented anywhere on planet earth, and the rest of the world can follow suit.
On February 7 the Chinese Ministry of Education shared instructions on the deployment of online teaching for students to resume their classes from the safety of their homes, providing 24,000 online courses from more than 20 online platforms for free. In the spring semester, 3923 courses at Tsinghua University and 4437 courses at Peking University will be taught through MOOCs, recorded courses, live streaming courses and video conference. Many online education companies are sharing free online courses for K12 students. These companies include Tencent Classroom, DingTalk, Zuoyebang, Yuanfudao, and VIPKid. Offering free services helps schools, but of course, the companies also benefit from increased downloads and activity on their platforms.
The outbreak is accelerating users’ awareness of online education, and the penetration rate and conversion rate are improving in a very short period, while the acquisition cost will be reduced for a short time before recovering after the outbreak. In the long run, it will accelerate OMO (integration of online and offline) and improve the digitalization, iteration speed and operational efficiency of the education and training industry as a whole. Whether the teaching scene itself is online, or the teaching service operation process is online, the integration of online and offline is an inevitable trend.
How well are other countries equipped to homeschool kids?
5 – Keep adults at home too
Putting health and safety above the economy, the world’s biggest remote work experiment has been triggered by the Coronavirus. “The crisis is a very, very big challenge to the society,” Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang told investors on a recent earnings call, and then it also gives people a “chance to try a new way of living and new way of work.”
As Chinese New Year approached its end, DingTalk, an app from Alibaba, suddenly jumped 40 spots to become the most downloaded free iOS app in China and has remained number one for the last few weeks. Users from 10 million corporations used DingTalk on Feb 3. Users can use team chat groups, look at org charts, and video-conference. Companies can also track attendance overtime hours automatically through the app.
Tencent has also seen more demand for its work tools, WeChat Work, and video-conferencing app Tencent Meeting, are among the top five most downloaded free iOS apps in China. WeChat Work is used by over 2.5 million companies, covering 60 million corporate users, and apparently the app recorded a tenfold increase on Feb 10 when many companies and schools resumed work.“We feel encouraged that we have made products that can help millions of people across China to ‘keep life going on’ during this challenging time,” Tencent said.
Compared with their peers abroad like Slack, Chinese apps have jumped on “China Speed” to meet the unique demands of Chinese employees. DingTalk introduced a beautify filter to its video-conferencing feature for those who didn’t want to have to put makeup on while working from home. Feishu, a corporate messaging app from TikTok and Douyin owner ByteDance that provides file sharing and document editing capabilities, released a “health management” platform in response to the coronavirus so that workers can log their location and daily temperature. Feishu is being used by over 50,000 Bytedance employees. As the epidemic becomes a pandemic, even stocks for workplace collaboration tools like Slack and Zoom are doing well.
How seriously will companies in other countries take the threat and keep employees at home?
6 – Minimize human interaction
After the completion of the new Wuhan hospital, an unmanned supermarket was also launched within a day. The supermarket was open 24 hours a day and received more than 200 customers on the first day. Self-service checkout produces no receipts and minimizes person-to-person contact. It was reported that in 2017, Jack Ma launched the “unmanned supermarket” and lost about 4 billion yuan since then. Companies such as Meituan, Ele me, and KFC have also launched “no contact distribution” service one after another during the outbreak.
Although China’s e-commerce ecosystem is already far more developed than anywhere else, there are still a few things people prefer to buy offline. For example, before the outbreak people used to go to the market for fresh groceries, but now buying groceries online has also become the norm. Petrol stations (Sinopec) are selling no contact groceries that you buy online and are put directly into the trunk of your car, so you don’t have to leave the driver’s seat or even open the window.
How can companies in other countries be creative and find new ways of selling with zero contact?
7 – Use the tech platforms
700 tech companies added protective medical equipment to their stock between Jan 1 and Feb 7. Tencent donated 1.5B RMB, Alibaba donated 1.1B RMB and Baidu donated 300M RMB. Baidu App, Kuaishou, Toutiao, Douyin/Tiktok and Wechat all launched a new channel dedicated to coronavirus related news on their platforms. Taobao has released policies to ban price inflation on medical equipment such as N95 masks on its e-commerce platform.
Under quarantine, a one-day tour of game worlds like Honor of Kings (owned by Tencent) is more fun than the indoor tour from your living room to the bedroom. Chinese users, particularly younger ones are willing to spend in-game since they can’t go out anyway, so the money they would usually spend on going to the movies, KTV and having dinner during Chinese New Year might as well be spent in the game world.
As a single example, daily active users of mobile game Honor of Kings, exceeded 100 million during the Spring Festival this year, reaching 109 million, a year-on-year increase of 58.9%. According to Citic Securities, the growth rate of major gaming companies in Q1 should be adjusted up by at least 10%. Honor of Kings had a revenue of around 2 billion yuan on Chinese New Year’s eve. The previous record for a single day for Honor of Kings was 1.3 billion yuan in 2019. According to QuestMobile, a consulting firm, on February 12, due to the outbreak, the number of daily active users and the average daily user time recorded in the gaming industry both reached a record high. Video and gaming downloads rose 38%, with a 30% increase in users over normal days and a 17.8% increase in time spent per person. So instead of getting individuals to donate, companies like Tencent are making a lot of money by keeping people entertained at home, and donating that money to the cause.
How can tech companies in other countries support people to deal with this crisis?
8 – Make your cities virus resistant
Building emergency centers (hospitals), locking down outbreak epicenters and mobilizing resources have happened in China over the last few weeks at ‘China Speed.’ As you can already see from drones, robots, e-commerce and biotech above, the smart city is just the physical platform in which an integrated technological society functions and the Coronavirus outbreak is showing the benefit of having more integration and control. The world has seen a taste of this watching the Chinese government construct 2 hospitals in less than 10 days, with millions watching the live-stream in real-time keeping the government accountable to its promise. China has more Smart Cities than the rest of the world combined. Under the five year plan to end in 2020, the Chinese government expects a public and private investment of Rmb500bn ($74bn) in these cities. We are yet to see how a fully integrated smart city of the 21st century operates, but we are seeing the beginnings of it right now during the outbreak, and the rest of the world can benefit from what China has done with its smart cities over the last few weeks.
WeChat and Baidu Maps released clinic information that covers ver 100 cities across China and over 3000 clinics. Patients can now find designated hospitals that are qualified to treat fever and coronavirus on their phones.
Smart cities can be further integrated with other technologies with the application of big data and cloud computing. Cities can be equipped with early-warning mechanisms to prevent the development of small problems and treat diseases before they spread. What we’ve seen happening with the technologies released during the outbreak is becoming the new normal in China, an integrated part of the smart city, where everything is tracked and analyzed for optimization in real-time, and other countries could apply some of those learnings.
What can cities around the world learn from the systems China is setting up to slow down the spread of this epidemic?
It’s not too late to learn from China’s efforts
The WHO’s Assistant Director General Bruce Aylward, the real-life Dustin Hoffman from the film ‘Outbreak’ who has fought Zika in Brazil, Ebola in West Africa, Yellow Fever in Central Africa and now Coronavirus in China, says, “the other important thing we learned from China, and the message that I’ve been sharing with Iran and with Italy over the last few days is that it’s never too late to get this under control. You can slow down the virus, and every step to try and reduce the number of cases, the intensity of transmission, that’s going to translate into fewer cases and people and lives saved. That was the big message I heard all the time in China, it’s about saving lives, saving lives, saving lives, everything they were doing was about saving lives. I think we are still learning from China. When I first came back, there was a lot of interest. People were mainly saying, ‘I don’t think we can do what China did,’ but now that cases are picking up, my phone is ringing much more and people are saying, ‘how did China do what they did exactly, what can we do?’ And it’s a very positive dialogue.”
We are constructing a planetary system connecting all humans and machines into a global matrix. Now is the time in which, 30 years from now, people will look back and say, that was the dawn of the era we are living in. We can support each other on a global scale and China has a lot to offer if the rest of the world is open to listening and asking for support. The virus can be contained if the world can collectively take the action that we now know works. Panic is not useful, swift action is. Thank you China for the inspiration and techniques to neutralize the virus.
What do you think? What did I miss? Will other countries be able to act fast enough to contain the virus? What can we do as individuals to help? Let me know in the comments!
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This article, Eight Hi-Tech Strategies Learnt from China’s Coronavirus Containment, builds upon on the premise “what doesn’t break you makes you stronger” in Fionn Wright’s previous article entitled ‘Could the Coronavirus make China Stronger than Ever? 10 Trends that Indicate it Will’