China is using technology to help constrain the novel coronavirus outbreak, but its methods are not without controversy.
China has been both praised for its efforts to limit the outbreak and criticized for trying to manipulate information. China seems to have its own way of doing things, and managing the coronavirus is no exception.
After building a hospital in less than two weeks, China is now deploying high-tech solutions to help manage the situation — and once again, these solutions seem part brilliant, part dystopian.
In remote parts of the country, authorities are using drones to monitor citizens walking in open areas without face masks. The drones are equipped with loudspeakers, and have been seen to scold people not wearing masks.
An elderly woman was spotted not wearing a masks, and the drones immediately reacted:
“You’d better go back home and remember to wash your hands,” the voice said over the drone loudspeaker, as the woman walked quickly away.
Meanwhile, tech companies including Baidu have said their AI technologies are being used at temperature checkpoints at railway stations and airports in big cities like Beijing and Shenzhen.
Since fever is one of the main symptoms of the coronavirus, it is hoped that people suffering from a fever could be detected and quarantined, reducing the risk of contagion. AI chatbots are also used to provide recommendations for people who fear they might be infected.
More than just technology
The state-run tabloid, the Global Times, tried to put this in a light-hearted view. The infrared sensors, they wrote, are good at detecting farts — so passengers would do best to try and keep them in. The video posted along with the tweet even features funny noises.
But it’s hard to see the funny side of this. China’s mass surveillance system might have advantages when it comes to containing the coronavirus, but the system bears striking resemblances to dystopian literature. Chinese authorities may try to make light of the situation, but this is no laughing matter. When the People’s Daily, the largest newspaper group in China, tweets that “Spring is just around the corner”, it’s not clear if this is a rallying cry or an attempt to steer public opinion in the desired direction.
In China’s system, an outbreak of this size can never be treated as a public health issue alone: it is handled with careful political calculation. Chinese president, Xi Jinping, called for effective “propaganda and public opinion guidance”, and a tight quarantine has been enforced, putting 56 million people on lockdown. People have been remarkably understanding of the quarantine, but increasingly, there are complants about the numerous shortages and problems caused by the quarantine — in Wuhan, many people are unable to enter or exit the city, which threatens their very livelihoods. Social media reports of masks and other hygiene products shortages abound, even in hospitals.
Some of the solutions designed to control the outbreak have also been questioned. China’s censorship and surveillance are seen by many as a potential threat to democracy itself. Mass surveillance in China is closely related to its highly controversial Social Credit System, and has significantly expanded under the China Internet Security Law which enforces censorship for over 1 billion people. Drones rebuking people who don’t wash their hands may be efficient in the short run, but they might damage a person’s credit score tomorrow. The potential future usages for this are, at the very least, questionable.
It’s remarkable that Chinese internet companies have developed a platform that lets users check if they have recently traveled with someone who contracted the new coronavirus. But it’s also concerning that this data is so readily available.
Is this right?
This is why the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak is remarkable in more than one way.
In addition to the health crisis itself and the surprising biological leaps made by the virus, it highlights how globalized the world has become and how easily the disease can spread across several continents.
Perhaps even more remarkable, we get to see how cutting-edge technology is making its way into modern healthcare. Drones, temperature sensors, and AI have already made the leap from sci-fi to reality and will likely continue to be used in the future. The coronavirus sets the stage for how we will react to future outbreaks, as well as potential side-threats. For instance, throughout the outbreak, misinformation has run rampant — conspiracy theories about the coronavirus abound, spreading more virally than the disease itself. Yet it’s also social media that helps people stay informed about the situations.
But perhaps more importantly, it highlights the lengths to which we are willing to go to prevent serious problems such as an outbreak. China has shown that it is willing and capable to act quickly and firmly, putting what it sees as the benefits of many above individual problems and freedoms. Would other countries act the same? Should they? It’s hard to say. But, perhaps, it’s something we should start thinking about.