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Are You Qualified to Leave Your Neighborhood? A Health-Rating App Can Tell
COVID-19 and China
A hand gesture says 'OK'. Credit to Owen Beard on Unsplash

On February 9, the Chinese digital giant Alibaba launched health-rating systems in Hangzhou to help both returners and administrators record travel information. Within only seven days, this Alipay-based Health-rating application has fast spread to more than 100 cities, fully covering Zhejiang, Szechuan and Hainan provinces.

As the prolonged Spring Festival Holiday ended, millions of Chinese set out on the journey back to work amid the continued spread of the coronavirus. The purpose of the self-reporting smartphone-based system is to minimize contact and facilitate travel documentation by replacing manual intervention. Just a few days ago, on February 15, the E-government Office under China’s State Council authorized Ali Cloud and Alipay to accelerate the development of a nationwide health-rating system.

The idea of the Health-rating system, or ‘Health Code,’ was originally a digital solution requested by the Yuhang District Administration (in Hangzhou Zhejiang). This is the most severely affected area in Hangzhou, representing 39 out of 169 identified cases as of today. When the district introduced closed management for all neighborhoods on February 3, allowing one family member to purchase vital goods every two days with a paper pass, they expected a digital solution to eliminate paper checks and allow data updates in real time. 

With flocks of returners thrusting into cities for work restart, the newest Health Code helps to contain further spreading by classifying people into three categories – green, yellow and red – through verifying self-reported information with the government’s back-end database.

Another social-media titan, Tencent, also launched a similar digital system in the form of a mini-program on WeChat in Shenzhen, a southern Chinese city. For example, when a newcomer wants to touch down in Beijing, he or she must register on a mini-program, Beijing Heart Helps, specially designed for the city, and input the travel information. Then the traveler has to register at the community and be quarantined for two weeks. During the following 14 days, he or she can only freely roam within the neighborhood and must daily self-report their body temperature and occurrence of suspicious symptoms via the mini-program. 

The widespread application of the rating system may be a prelude of a digital economy and a more profound social deployment. The anti-virus war galvanizes every citizen to engage in an online network, such as remote healthcare (Miaoshou.com), remote education (Yuanfudao) and online retail (Freshhema), amid the suspension of the school campus and office building.

What’s behind this rumbling tussle is that tech bellwethers are competing to construct digital industry infrastructures. Alibaba’s other product, DingTalk, a remote office app, has struck another blow in the education and online-office markets. As of February 10, DingTalk’s online class application has covered schools in more than 300 cities, supported over 600 thousand teachers with their tutorials and 50 million students worldwide.

The health-rating system exposes Alibaba’s ambition in conquering e-government affairs and digitized social governance. On the other hand, personal data usage has put the public on alert, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. When the government collects piles of personal data from a commercial app, the media and public should be concerned about how the officials will deal with it; how the relationship with commercial companies will be after the fade of the coronavirus is a case in point.

Apart from personal data security, it remains to be seen if such tweaks will fundamentally change our habits and lead to a sustainable digital era. Time will reveal if it is a long-term investment for all humankind – or just part of an anti-virus war.

Editor: Luke Sheehan

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