A case study of China’s high-tech systems in the fight against COVD-19
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China was the birthplace of the novel coronavirus. In the Chinese territories, it infected around 80,000 people and killed more than 3,000. In the beginning, the outbreak was massive, but in recent weeks, they managed to contain it. For a country, the size of China with 1.4 billion inhabitants, reporting 50 cases a day is just a drop in the ocean. Some people have called the Chinese approach draconian. The scope of this article is not to judge their approach but rather to illustrate how they are managing to win the war against COVID-19 using advanced technologies.
China is known for the massive amounts of data it harvests from its citizens. They have a network of more than 200 million video surveillance cameras distributed around the country. Apart from these, they also installed biometric scanners in the doorway of residential complexes. When a person decides to leave his apartment, he has to scan his face as a sort of registration. From then on, the Intelligent System processing the data knows that the person is outside and can track his whereabouts via the extensive video surveillance system. Central databases stores all of this information, machine learning algorithms then crunch the data and calculates the potential social interactions of the person.
The central database also gathers data from additional sources. One of these is the WeChat app which is used by about 1 billion people monthly just in China. The app conveniently combines localisation, social media, chats and e-wallets into one system. The first, advantage of such a system is that payments occur using contactless virtual cards and without exchanging real money. Thus, this lack of physical exchange automatically reduces the dissemination of the virus.
The second advantage is the localisation feature which provides accurate geolocation of the individual. Whereas the surveillance cameras have a limited reach, the location provided by WeChat will give the system precise information regarding the whereabouts of the person (within an error of a few meters). If a person comes in close contact with someone infected with the virus, the system can immediately alert him and get him to avoid that person.
The third advantage is that since the e-wallet includes information about shops visited together with the purchases, the two can be combined. From the location of the shop, once can deduce if a person shopping might have contracted the virus because a few minutes earlier, an infected person was shopping in that same shop. The purchases, on the other hand, might provide information regarding the wellbeing of the individual. An Artificial Intelligence (AI) system can easily infer that if certain items (such as medicine) are purchased, then the person or someone close to him is most probably ill. The chats on WeChat further corroborate this hypothesis since they are automatically analysed using the AI. The system then flags the person as a potential case, and a medical team visits him to perform specific tests.
The fourth advantage is the social media element which is essential to identify the social circle of the person and reach to them in case of an infection.
The system is so sophisticated that it can list most of the people who interacted with an infected person in the previous two weeks. The government then imposes self-quarantine for at least fourteen days on these people.
Every citizen also gets an automatic Health code which can be either; red, amber or green. This coding determines the mobility of the person. A green colour means that the person is free to roam unrestricted. People who just returned from abroad or might have been in contact with an infected person have a yellow code, and their movement is restricted (in fact they are not allowed to drive). Those who are probably infected fall under the red category and they have to stay in quarantine.
The system in use is not just high-tech, but it also combines procedures adopted in other countries. All flights originated from infected areas are manually screened. At the entrance of commercial buildings (such as shopping malls), employees check the temperature of people and lodge a report if fever is detected. In some cities, only one person is allowed to leave the house every three days to buy essentials, and they can only drive if they have a special permit.
The idea of the Chinese government is to identify hotspots before they get out of control. The system is considered by many as unconventional and verging on the extreme, but it seems to be giving good results. For sure, it is the highest tech epidemic control ever created in the history of the world. Of course, there are various issues with the system; the most obvious is the fact that people are sacrificing their privacy. In the end, no system is perfect and reaching a balance is very difficult. Thus we have to ask ourselves what length we are ready to go to save further lives.