Coronavirus, how China stopped it with technology and what Italy and our world can learn

In the Chinese response to the coronavirus, essential support has been given by technology: the tech sector has provided useful tools to con...

In the Chinese response to the coronavirus, essential support has been given by technology: the tech sector has provided useful tools to contain the crisis. Would these methods also apply in Italy and, above all, now that the emergency is returning, will China give up these control instruments?



In the dystopian situation generated by the spread of the coronavirus, China quickly became aware of the essential role that technologies could play to counter the health crisis and normalize the economy.

The ongoing pandemic has therefore been a formidable testing ground in China for numerous new technologies in the medical, security and surveillance fields, tools which will be treasured in facing any future health emergency.

The extraordinary situation has also allowed the government to establish close relationships with the most promising companies in the tech sector, united in the common goal of perfecting the Chinese surveillance system in the name of health protection (for now).

Let's see what are the main ways in which the tech sector has made itself useful in the fight against coronavirus, in ways that are sometimes surprising both for the originality of the solutions, and for the incredible organizational and control machine that has made it possible to implementation.

But then, in conclusion, let us also ask ourselves: the Beijing method would be applicable to Italy and, above all, now that the emergency seems to be coming back, the Chinese government will know (and will) renounce the formidable control instruments that it has successfully experimented during this period of crisis?

The role of technologies in containing contagion
At the workplace, employees may also undergo further checks and health tests at any time, or they may be required to deliver a "travel verification report" or a log of recent journeys to be requested directly from their telephone company, which it will obtain GPS and WiFi data and send it to the customer for presentation in the company.

In this surreal situation, the Chinese authorities soon realized that technology could play a key role in containing the contagion, and therefore endorsed numerous synergies with the giants of the national technology sector and with local startups to develop creative solutions for the contrast of the health emergency.

To understand the Chinese situation and to understand if and how similar solutions can be adopted in Italy, some important premises must then be made.

First of all, we are talking about a country where the massive control of citizens is already on the agenda (epidemic or not), with numerous initiatives aimed at security and welfare that go through a mandatory and complete transparency between citizen and authority, without that there is room for the privacy of the individual.

A prime example in this sense is the Social Credit System project, which assigns a "score" to each citizen to then raise or lower it according to his behavior towards the authority and his fellow citizens and which is active in numerous municipalities on an experimental level and awaits shortly the official extension to the whole national territory.

A second important (and disturbing) example is that of the so-called "Skynet Project", whose name demonstrates the lack of sense of humor of the Chinese rulers and which identifies a massive and technological video surveillance system. The government's goal is to reach 500 million cameras connected by 2020, equipped with facial recognition systems and, for the more timid, various other identification tools, including an algorithm that detects the "stamp" of the walk of each thus allowing to identify even those who wear caps or masks.

A third example is that of the Smart City project, which passes through the identification of citizens via facial or fingerprint recognition to access various smart services that will be implemented in tomorrow's Chinese metropolises.

For Chinese citizens, therefore, the aggressive control put in place during the coronavirus emergency is therefore only the last step in a penetrating control system that limits people's freedom, which has contributed to "normalizing" exceptional measures. put in place by the Chinese government to contain the infection, measures which, if applied in a European country, could hardly be accepted by the population.

In addition, in these situations the central government is used to compete with the local government levels, to then reward the members of the party who have best managed to manage the crisis. This generates an effect of radicalization of the virus containment policies, in order to bring out one's region as a model to follow.

If the government's goal is to contain the epidemic, then every means is lawful and citizens' privacy can well be sacrificed.

It should also be borne in mind that it is "tradition" in China that the private sector does its utmost to support the public authority in times of crisis and the companies themselves are well aware of the risks they run, in terms of commercial image, if they do not demonstrate maximum availability to helping the country in this difficult moment (with social disparaging campaigns around the corner).

Drones and robots serving quarantined patients
Another "feature" of crisis management in a country like China is that of the bombastic announcements (with little or limited real impact), ecstatic re-launched by news agencies that are often "incentivized" to focus on these positive news, also in the technology sector.

In our case, however, it really seems that in Hubei robotics has started to find practical and useful applications on the occasion of the health crisis.

For example, in the hospital of Wuchang, in Wuhan, some "robot doctors" have recently started working, which can limit the situations at risk of contagion for the health personnel, dealing with activities such as taking the temperature of the patients, allowing visual monitoring their status, deliver meals etc.

A similar experiment was conducted at Wuhan Union Hospital, where a robotic arm developed by Tsinghua University in Beijing is in operation that can swab or listen to patients.

Logistics also benefited from the technological avant-garde with many deliveries to patients in quarantine managed by drones (so as to avoid contact with the bellboys), as well as with faster transport of samples between hospital structures thanks to UAV carriers (unmanned aerial vehicles) available with the contribution of various startups and companies specialized in the sector, including the Antwork company, controlled by the Japanese TerraDrone.

In China they quickly understood that among the activities most at risk of contagion there are precisely those of health and safety control and therefore they tried to replace humans as much as possible in these situations in favor of IT tools.

Another example is related to the use of drones with loudspeakers and high definition cameras, which allowed agents to monitor the areas assigned to them with a broader and safer perspective and to intervene by giving indications (and reproaching) those who did not respect the heavy constraints imposed by the Chinese government, even going so far as to "accompany" the citizens who left without the prescribed face masks to their homes.

Other drones are able to detect the temperature of the person remotely and alert the authorities in case of fever.

While in Italy we rely on ordinary control tools and on paper self-certifications that must pass from hand to hand, in China the contact between agents and citizens is reduced to a minimum, with the law enforcement agencies resorting to "human contact" only in emergency situations and who rely, for other cases, on the work of drones that can bring their eyes and their voice where it is needed.

The apps that identify the sick
In China, then, no "self-certification" is delivered, in many Chinese cities everything is entrusted to an application, which through a QR-code or a simple color code allows to identify the person or to define the degree of risk of contagion.

App management has a huge advantage when it comes to putting citizens' travel data in the system, for example in Aplipay's "Health Code" app has been officially adopted in over 200 Chinese cities, which assigns a color to various subjects who download it and then "modify" that color using big data.

The assigned color code (red, yellow or green) corresponds to quarantine measures or more or less stringent limitations on the freedom of movement, limitations which are difficult not to comply with as their respect is "mapped" on the smartphone.

The color code varies if the subject has been in contact with people who carry a danger code, thus allowing the authorities to stop the movements of potential contagion vehicles in the bud.

WeChat, for its part, has developed with the support of China's National Development and Reform Council (CNDRC) an app with similar functionality that has been adopted in the Canton region and is based on QR-Code to allow rapid identification of the subjects as well as a "classification" of the risk of contagion for everyone.

Instead, the government launched an add-on for Alipay and WeChat called "close contact detector" in early February, which notifies the user if he has been in contact with a carrier of the virus.

The help of AI and Big Data
As mentioned, the use of these applications has an essential reflection on the amount of data available to the authorities to contain the virus and verify its evolution.

This amount of data has allowed, for example, the development of a heat map by WeChat, which follows the diagnoses in real time throughout the country.

Baidu instead began to provide real-time concentration of subjects in a place, thus allowing its users to avoid gatherings.

The municipality of Beijing made important decisions in terms of viability based on the examination of the aggregated data available to it (for example, at the beginning of February the movement of inter-provincial trains was suspended but not air transport or high-speed rail transport , because the data showed that only the particular type of trains stopped constituted a dangerous vehicle of contagion).

China Electronics Technology Group Corporation has put online a program that requires travelers to enter their travel data (by train or plane or other public transportation) together with their personal data (name, surname and ID number) and allows (after a QR-code scan with your smartphone) to know if you have traveled with confirmed or suspected cases of coronavirus.

The program (which was initially based on publicly available data) has received the support of numerous public entities such as the National Health Commission, the Ministry of Transport and the China Railway and Civil Aviation Administration of China.

The site immediately went viral, receiving over 150 million visits in the 10 days following its opening (February 8).

Given the understandable privacy concerns, given the amount of information managed by both administrations and various users, the representative of the company that created the program issued a laconic declaration to XinhuaNet, stating that: "Data security and privacy are protected on the platform ”. In China, that's enough.

Meanwhile, in Chongqing (metropolitan city which in the urban area includes 35 million people according to some estimates) a map is available which, in addition to identifying confirmed cases of coronavirus, traces backwards activities and movements of the infected, so as to allow the inhabitants the city to better assess its risk of contagion and in any case exercise greater caution in the areas affected by the passage of the case which is then confirmed to be contagious (e.g. when touching surfaces).

On the artificial intelligence front, on the other hand, Alibaba has developed a diagnosis system based on artificial intelligence that allows to detect, in patients with pneumonia symptoms and through a CT scan, the presence of coronavirus with a 96% degree of effectiveness in just 20 seconds, thus drastically reducing diagnosis times. Alibaba said that over 100 hospitals in the provinces of Hubei, Guangdong and Anhui are already adopting this system.

Another sector in which artificial intelligence has given great help to control activities is that of smart video surveillance and remote symptom control.

Video surveillance and remote symptom control in the time of the coronavirus
Chinese tech companies have multiplied their efforts to develop programs capable of determining possible symptoms of contagion through video surveillance tools, then blocking suspect subjects.

Artificial intelligence algorithms have also been developed that can identify subjects without masks, with Baidu having indeed made the source code of their artificial intelligence created for this purpose open-source (and which recognizes subjects without masks with an accuracy of 96, 5%) to allow maximum diffusion.

Many companies then tried to develop systems for detecting temperature remotely. The devices of SenseTime, a company that deals with artificial intelligence, allow to detect body temperature and have been installed by the authorities in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen in subway stations, schools and gathering places.

In Chengdu, on the other hand, some agents received smart helmets to check passersby by automatically detecting the temperature of anyone who enters within five meters of the helmet.

At the same time, Chinese companies have taken care to support the government in controlling the population in this period of health crisis, for example SenseTime itself claims to have developed software that can recognize, with a "relatively high" degree of certainty, the also faces of those who wear a mask. This initiative reminds us that the constant monitoring set up by the Chinese government has a dual purpose, on the one hand to contain the health emergency, on the other to control the population.

Especially in this moment of crisis, it is important for the Beijing government to maintain political and social control, preventing the outbreak of protests and the loss of consensus in general (the ongoing epidemic is a threat to the silent agreement between the Chinese government and the Chinese, which foresees by the latter a strenuous endurance in the face of controls and limitations of their freedoms, and by the government a guarantee of constant economic growth) but, in this sector, the Chinese government has another trump card .

Censorship on fake news (and prison)
The Chinese tech giants have already made clear their commitment to fighting those who spread rumors about the virus.

While in Italy this news has the positive flavor of fighting fake news, in China it takes on the sinister flavor of the intention to stifle critical voices against the regime in the bud.

Moreover, the government has threatened on several occasions penalties of up to 15 years of imprisonment for the spread of unfounded rumors about the virus, penalties which according to many serve to ensure that there is no negative news about the government's work in this delicate phase also on the plane international.

To confirm this thesis, the rapid disappearance of many social media posts complaining about the shortage of supplies in Wuhan, or the reported "push" by government representatives to news agencies to "focus on positive news".

With a note dated February 5, the China Cybersecurity Administration also specified that the Chinese web giants (Sina Weibo, Tencent, Byte Dance and others) will remain under "special supervision" until the crisis ends.

In response to these stimuli, the various Chinese social networks have demonstrated the usual zealous commitment, supported by government censors (who, like the doctors, are engaged in this period in an overwork that according to some sources has also made a victim, who died for too many hours pass in front of a non-stop screen, victim strictly included by the government in the list of heroes who died fighting the virus).

Conclusions
A country already heavily oriented towards stringent mass control that has carried out several unpublished technology-based social control experiments may "regress" to a lower level of control or this will only be an opportunity to tighten the links of the Orwellian surveillance machine put standing by the government of the People's Republic?

The answer, it seems obvious, is that the Chinese government, presumably with the justification of having to keep the attention high to avoid the recurrence of disastrous epidemics, will maintain and indeed strengthen and perfect the control tools applied in this emergency phase, to finally arrive the complete tracing of each citizen, with the result that this, knowing that it is always observed and identifiable, will behave accordingly.

So what remains after the virus? A huge privacy problem for the Chinese people, who even more sacrificed the privacy of their citizens on the altar of security.

And what can we Westerners learn from the rigid Chinese approach?

We can hardly think of the implementation in Italy of such drastic measures as those adopted in the People's Republic, precisely because they impose a complete stripping of an individual's life in front of the authority, the employer and also the condominiums (having to justify to the goalkeeper where you have been in the last two weeks to enter your home is an idea that we Italians would certainly struggle to endure), in the same way a drone that peeks into the houses to check if we have gone out has a dystopian flavor.

Other measures cannot be implemented simply because it would not be materially possible (or perhaps desirable). Using surveillance cameras in public places to diagnose the virus en masse in Italy is unthinkable, for the simple fact that we do not have enough cameras for such a company and because the same cameras are not, for the most part, connected to each other so as to network to "educate" an artificial intelligence in charge of collecting symptoms.

Moreover, even if such a system were implemented, it could later be used by the Authority for less "noble" purposes, risking to drop the Italian government in the temptation of absolute control that is conquering Beijing.

However, we must not forget that the value of technology is neutral in itself and that many other countries (for example Taiwan) have used it successfully in a democratic context.

Net of Chinese excesses, measures such as the dematerialisation of control procedures, the robotisation of routine tasks entrusted to health and safety agents, the use of big data in decisions and above all the open and transparent involvement of Italian technological excellence in the challenge to viruses would have been and are still desirable and appropriate choices.

Similarly, greater transparency on the routes of the first confirmed cases of contagion (with the consequent possibility of their computer engineering) would have been perhaps desirable in the initial contagion phase, to allow the spread of the epidemic to be blocked in the bud.

Regret remains because these measures would have been much more effective if applied extensively when the virus was still an external "phenomenon" not to be allowed into the country, when the problem came from China or when the problem was limited to a few municipalities to be isolated. Now, in fact, the technological containment measures are partly useless because now the virus is a phenomenon and we have had to surrender to isolation to counter it.

Some finds, however, deserve our attention, a technological effort is needed to protect our doctors and public security agents, so that unnecessary contact between people, forced by a Byzantine bureaucracy, cannot be an occasion of contagion.

The computerization of the procedures is therefore the first (and simplest) step in this sense, and the paper self-certification issued by the Ministry is unfortunately the last sign of the fact that we are not taking all the steps in the right direction.

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