Decoding China’s COVID‐19 ‘virus exceptionalism’

Photo : Decoding China’s COVID‐19 ‘virus exceptionalism’

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic incurs enormous challenges in public health and socioeconomic life globally. The high transmissibility, long incubation period, and existence of asymptomatic patients expose the ineffectiveness of traditional mitigation techniques (e.g., wearing masks, keeping physical distance, restricting long‐distance travels), furthermore, lead to the dilemma between halting the viral spread and maintaining economic growth for the government decision-makers.  

As response, timely and accurate contact tracing is urged as a prioritized response to prevent viral spread before large-scale vaccine implementation. Based on the principles of completeness (the exhaustive coverage of public health data) and timeliness (the immediate identification and reaction to outbreaks), big data analytics of digital contact tracing data leverages the power of digitization in tackling the crisis. Nevertheless, without strong enforcement and coordination mechanisms at the societal level, only digital technology alone cannot sufficiently complement traditional mitigation measures for contact tracing effectiveness. 

We argue that the effectiveness of digital contact tracing requires proactive interactions among key stakeholders in an open innovation ecosystem including enterprises, government, citizens, and communities. More precisely, effective digital contact tracing entails the agile government decision-making in digital transformation supported by corporate technology innovation, broad citizen participation and “middleground” community coordination. 

As the world’s ground zero of Covid-19, China was broadly criticized for its initial mismanagement to control the viral spread. However, less attention has been paid to China’s “virus exceptionalism” that introduces harsh measures (e.g. draconian lockdown of megacities, digital contact tracing systems, mandatory quarantine upon arrival for international travellers) to achieve a viral reproduction rate (R0)  close to zero in a short period, at the same time, keep its economic growth – in 2020, China still maintains a positive 2.3% real GDP growth (the World Bank) in contrast to -8.3% in France (INSEE). 

We explore the three stages of a community-based digital contact tracing strategy implemented in Wuhan, China, the first megacity in the world reported COVID-19 outbreak. The local authorities of Wuhan provided the public little information regarding the graveness of the situation before its draconic lockdown on January 23, 2020. Although all local and external transportation were suspended and almost nonessential businesses were closed down, due to lacking location-specific information on infections and coordinated crisis management, the scale of infections still escalated sharply.  

In mid-February 2020, the municipal authorities of Wuhan introduced the community-based digital contact tracing strategy during the lockdown period. Based on the borders of residential neighbourhoods, citizens were divided into community grids as the basic units of digital contact tracing. Endorsed by the government, ICT firms firstly developed contact tracing apps implanted on ubiquitously used communication and online payment digital platforms, such WeChat (Tencent) and Alipay (Alibaba). On the digital contact tracing platform, citizens provide demographic, geographic and health status information via the apps, which are further integrated in the municipal contact tracing databases. To ensure the effectiveness of digital contact tracing, civil servants and volunteers were dispatched as community contact tracers (or grid correspondents) to get in contact with residents at the door-to-door basis. In addition, they also provided community-based public services, such as alert of the outbreak in the community, patient transfer to hospitals or quarantine centers, and daily necessities delivery coordination. 

After the lift of the lockdown on April 8, 2020, the big data analytics results on contact tracing data are further incorporated to a community-based three-color health QR code system. Implanted on the contact tracing apps on the smartphones, citizens receive colored QR code indicating the level of infection risk of the community grids the citizens were affiliated. To ensure the effectiveness of this dynamic controlling measure, the contact tracers checked the health QR code colors and registered the body temperature of passersby at the entrance of residential areas, public places, or public transportation. These measures ensure tight monitoring of human mobility and timely identification of close contacts in public places once a positive case is diagnosed. To further eradicate threats of a “second wave, the health QR code is also as digital ID in receiving the universal nucleic tests and vaccination at the community health centers. 

As the staple of China’s strategy curbing the pandemic, the “Wuhan Model” community-based digital contact tracing system combines the digital technological advances and the mobilization of multiple social forces embedded in the open innovation system. It not only contributes to the ultimate triumph of Wuhan in controlling the pandemic, but also safeguard the “back-to-normal” life at lower socio-economic costs than what repeated lockdowns may incur. 

Nonetheless, the community-based digital contact tracing measures raise substantial ethical concerns, including enormous concerns on users’ informed consent, privacy, anonymization, data ownership, and access rights. The effectiveness of digital contact tracing requires broad citizen participation on the resolution of privacy concerns, which are often ignored in the bottom-up data collection process.  The top-down feedback largely depends on the goodwill of the government. Without accountable legislation and transparent monitoring, government and tech giants may monopolize the use of public data with little collective social forces to advocate the rights of the weaker side of the individual citizens. Thereafter, decision-makers in other countries must be based on political, social, technological, and economic idiosyncrasies to ensure the effectiveness of digital contact tracing and civil rights protection.  

Note: The original research Decoding China’s COVID‐19 ‘virus exceptionalism’: Community‐based digital contact tracing in Wuhan co-authored by Philipp Boeing (ZEW – Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research, Germany) and Yihan Wang (EM Normandie Business School and Métis Lab, France) is published on R&D Management. DOI: Both authors contributed equally to the work. 

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    Yihan Wang Yihan Wang is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship. He joined EM Normandie in 2020. He has a PhD in Administration (Specialist field: international business) from HEC Montreal, Canada, awarded in 2019. His thesis is an analysis of the Chinese aerospace industry. His research and teaching areas are international strategy, innovation networks and regional development.

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