As China grapples with the spread of the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV that originated in Wuhan in December, the country has turned to technology in a number of interesting ways. Here are some of the most striking tech-focused attempts to find solutions to the range of issues that the coronavirus and subsequent policies of transport restrictions and lockdowns have presented.
With people stuck indoors all day and afraid to go out, China’s food delivery services initially saw plenty of business, albeit from often reduced pools of restaurants and with clear problems in locations in lockdown mode. The roads in many of China’s major cities have been emptier than usual, perhaps lessening some of the traffic risks that delivery drivers face on a daily basis, yet the potential for couriers to become exposed to — and inadvertently spread — the coronavirus has quickly become a cause for concern.
Delivery companies have enacted a range of measures aimed at reassuring customers, from providing forms listing the health condition of anyone involved in getting the meal to the recipient’s door, to installing special food delivery lockers in residential complexes:
— Keith Zhai (@QiZHAI) February 3, 2020
Fears of coronavirus contamination have spurred Chinese authorities to enact what Bloomberg has described as “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment” with numerous businesses ordered closed and people encouraged to clock in online instead of showing up at the office.
Schools and universities across the country have also been required to postpone the start of the spring semester. That’s led some teachers to offer classes over the internet to their pupils; images of facemask-wearing educators delivering lessons over livestream to their students have been circulating widely in recent days.
Major education apps and private tutor companies have also opened up some or all of their classes for free online, while Alibaba-owned video streaming site Youku has stepped in to offer free lessons for some primary and secondary students in coordination with their schools.
In developments that China’s stay-at-home youth are more likely to welcome, a number of streaming platforms have been rolling out new entertainment offerings in the wake of the public health crisis.
The Spring Festival holiday, which began on January 24, was meant to be one of the biggest times of year for the Chinese box office. Coronavirus sabotaged it completely, with a host of big money blockbusters cancelling their scheduled releases for Lunar New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, then cinemas across the country announcing that they would be shuttered until further notice as mass gatherings were discouraged.
In response, the makers of one such blockbuster, Lost in Russia, struck a deal with ByteDance to release their film on a range of apps for free, including Douyin (China’s TikTok). The move provoked a wave of commentary — and not just because most critics agreed the movie was poor. Some in the industry claimed the deal was “‘trampling’ and ‘destroying’ China’s cinema industry,” as one Reuters report had it, while others questioned whether it was actually a hard-nosed business decision rather than the charitable gesture it was pitched as.
Nevertheless, days later leading streaming platforms iQIYI and Tencent announced that they would be making the Donnie Yen-led film Enter the Fat Dragon available on a paid basis online, two weeks before its originally-scheduled cinematic release. The film almost immediately leapt to the top of iQIYI’s most-watched movie chart. As the coronavirus uncertainty continues, and new TV shows and movies have suspended their filming schedules, more such deals may well follow.
Another of China’s major streaming platforms, Bilibili, has also been trying to make the most of bored citizens being told to stay home. According to the platform, “From January 23 to February 5, the number of videos with the keyword ‘bored’ at Bilibili exploded, with bi-weekly increases of 306% while videos describing indoor activities rose by 90%.”
On Monday February 3 the site was host to Music Vaccine, an electronic music livestream featuring 12 DJs from across the country. The next day, record label and music festival organizer Modern Sky kicked off their Strawberry Z (or “Stay at Home Strawberry”) Music Festival on the platform. Over the course of five days, Bilibili will host sets from 70 acts, including rappers Kafe.Hu and Tizzy T, rock acts Birdstriking and Re-TROS, and Big Band winners New Pants. The “festival” will be a mix of videos of artists performing in their homes and previously-recorded sets from past Modern Sky-organized festivals across the country (including several at Wuhan Strawberry Festival). The idea is to use Bilibili’s bullet comment feature to create a sense of community even while many viewers will be in some form of isolation.
Being cooped up at home isn’t great for many people’s exercise regimes, but it doesn’t have to be disastrous either. A number of gyms and yoga studios in major cities have taken to livestreaming some of their classes, while Chinese Super League footballer Wang Song has used social media to post a series of exercises that people can do in their own apartments to stay in shape.
Wang Song, the record holder of CSL appearances who is still playing for Jiangsu at the age of 36, published a video demonstrating how to make exercises at home. Since most public facilities are closed these days, Chinese people have no access to gym or outdoor fitness training. pic.twitter.com/a7tVWfam09
— Titan Sports Plus (@titan_plus) February 5, 2020
Brands too have sensed an opportunity in this space, with Under Armour among the first to offer simple exercises for people to follow in the confines of their own homes.
Of course China has turned to drones in some form to fight the coronavirus. This is a country that has been experimenting with drones for everything from making food deliveries to restoring the Great Wall to flamethrowing.
Party tabloid Global Times has been proudly parading the use of drones on its Twitter feed. This first example, a video showing a drone in Inner Mongolia with speakers attached telling a woman to remember to wear a face mask, was widely decried as “dystopian.”But that didn’t stop GT from doubling down on the coronavirus drone videos, posting a few days later about a temperature-checking drone operation:
Almost overnight, China went from suppression of information to near information overload on 2019-nCoV. And amid fast-changing and often unclear circumstances, social media has depressingly fuelled the spread of misinformation and rumors.
One attempt to try and combat this has come in the form of a special fact-checking site set up by Tencent. The need that many have felt for real-time information sources has also prompted the use of mapping and travel apps to try and avoid areas worst hit by the virus.
As Reuters reports, “Both data mapping company QuantUrban and a third-party WeChat mini-program developer have created platforms that take official information on the neighborhoods where confirmed cases live and map it geographically so that users can gauge how close they are to infection sites.”
This information is not only being used and sought by individuals of course. As The Wall Street Journal reports, officials are “using big data to track the moments of infected individuals,” combining it with China’s extensive surveillance apparatus to keep an eye on anyone suspected of carrying the virus.
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