What happened?

A new coronavirus outbreak in China recalls the 2001-2003 SARS outbreak, which took about 800 lives and cost almost $40 billion. This new outbreak is likely to spread even faster because of the increased mobility of Chinese people. Take, for example, the growing Chinese middle classes that can afford airplane tickets (e.g. international departures from China grew over 10 times between 2001 and 2017) and the expanding Chinese high-speed railway network (the number of Chinese railway passengers has grown exponentially in the last decade, to over 3 billion annually). Moreover, the outbreak coincides with China’s very busy Spring festival. As a result, this new coronavirus’ infection rate is much higher than that of SARS.

What does this mean?

However, the adoption of digital technology provides reason for optimism. When SARS broke out in 2001, the Chinese government was accused of concealing the case. But with Chinese netizens actively posting about this new outbreak on social media, China’s government cannot hide the outbreak from its people and the rest of the world, forcing it to respond much faster (e.g. WeChat allows users to report incidents of the virus and inadequate measures). Furthermore, real-time data of patients (e.g. their whereabouts, symptoms) could enable authorities to implement much more effective measures (e.g. quarantining more specific areas), while AI helps to track and predict the spread of the contagious disease. Lastly, using the smartphone as an interface for telehealth services, many patients can now diagnose themselves with the disease, increasing the chances of early detection and treatment (e.g. Alibaba and PingAn offering free online consultations).

What’s next?

We have written before that despite the promises of the internet (e.g. freedom of speech, democratization), what has materialized is the opposite (e.g. surveillance capitalism, digital repression) and the internet is in need of a transition.  However, in times of crises, the bottom-up approach of internet and social media still proves to be a powerful force. To illustrate, the Iranian government was forced to acknowledge that they shut down the Ukrainian International Airline Flight PS752 after it took off from Tehran because of social media posts that reported on the crash. And as data has a will of its own, showing evidence of things we like and do not like to measure, it prevents actors from concealing the truth when things go wrong (e.g. Swedish radiation monitors alarmed the world about the Chernobyl disaster). Furthermore, open data that can be scrutinized by non-public and -private parties can help uncover malpractices and protect citizens, thus granting them freedom and more empowerment.