COVID-19 and Technology – [Part 1]
By now, it is well known that China has been able to contain and control the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology played a big role in China being able to do this. The Chinese government collects an immense amount of data about their citizens – images from 200 million CC TV Cameras are fed into a central database and analyzed using machine learning.
Another big source of data is the WeChat app – which is both a social media app and debit card. While it is convenient for people to do digital payments, it also tracks where you are, what you have bought and what you are saying to friends. All this technology is being used in novel ways to control the coronavirus epidemic.
So, if you get ill in China and you go to a hospital, they register this with the authorities – who, in turn, pull your name down from their database. Their algorithms are able to tell them the different places that you have been to in the last 14 days and all the people that you might have been in contact with. For example, if you bought bread (with the WeChat app), the baker is notified to self-quarantine for 14 days – so he does not pass it on to others.
In this manner, every single citizen has a code: red, amber or green. The automatic color-coding scheme determines where you can go. This allowed the Chinese government to contain the hotspots before they got out of control.
This way, people continued to work if they were not at risk of contamination and self-isolated if they were. The controls in Wuhan were even tighter – where only one person from each household was allowed to go out every three days to buy essentials. People were allowed to drive only if they had a special permit. As Gabriel Leung, Faculty of Medicine at University of Hong Kong said, “Public life is reduced. However, infected people rarely spread the disease beyond their household. This is how the epidemic came under control.”
What held it all together and allowed China to defeat the pandemic is the social solidarity by the citizens. The Chinese government framed it as the people’s war against the virus. This required personal sacrifice by the citizens – like not panic buying and staying at home when they were told to do so. It helped that every public place has large screens that can be used by the government for their messaging.
After 9/11, we are accustomed to higher levels of security at the airport and at the entry to high profile buildings. We can expect the new normal (after this pandemic) to be the measurement of temperature using thermal scanners. This is already being done in China. At airports, one can expect all incoming flights getting screened.
The methodologies employed by the Chinese government were “heavy handed” and invades privacy. Such techniques cannot be easily deployed in other countries. Even if they had the infrastructure to collect the data, they would find it hard to deploy similar techniques. This does not mean that they cannot use technology to combat the spread of the pandemic. This topic will be discussed in a subsequent article.
[Prakash Narayan serves in the Executive Committee of ATEA. A BITS Pilani alumnus, Narayan received an MS in CS from IIT, Delhi. He worked for over two decades at Sun Microsystems, before he co-founded Micello. He is a member of the Angel Investor group Keiretsu Forum, and also volunteers his time in several organizations, including TiE Silicon Valley.]