As China relaxes zero-COVID, tech firms assume a larger role in fighting the virus • TechCrunch

Jean J. Sanders

China’s abrupt easing of its zero-COVID policy last week has led to a spike in cases and rising fears of the virus. Over the last three years, the authority has used big data to monitor the movement of people and thus control the spread of the virus. Now that the government is gradually undoing some of these tech-enabled restrictions, individuals are turning to private tech firms to manage the pandemic.

At the dawn of the pandemic in 2020, DXY, an online community for health professionals, swiftly introduced a fact-checking feature to fight COVID disinformation. But such grassroots efforts soon faded into the background as COVID cases remained rare in China and treatments happened at centralized, government-directed facilities.

The Chinese authority also rolled out a suite of COVID-prevention apps that became a digital pass for people to move around on a daily basis. These apps track individuals’ health status with diligent, compulsory COVID tests and monitor their potential exposure to the virus through travel history.

China is now doing away with some of these measures. As of Monday, the much-loathed travel tracing app was dropped, providing some relief to those who are wary of the tool being abused to control one’s life. Major cities like Guangzhou and Beijing have advised patients with mild or no COVID symptoms to isolate at home, ending a nearly three-year-long practice wherein those infected with COVID were sent to makeshift quarantine hospitals regardless of their symptoms.

As the virus is expected to spread in the upcoming weeks with people left to their own devices, Chinese tech firms are coming forth with initiatives to help navigate a new wave of infections.

Over the past week, more than a million users have sought medical advice from doctors remotely through JD Health, the healthcare arm of Chinese ecommerce giant, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch. The types of remote healthcare the platform provides include advice on COVID prevention, chronic disease management, recovery plans, and psychological counseling. Asymptomatic and those with mild symptoms are also able to get prescriptions via JD Health.

JD Health introduced the online COVID clinic shortly after China’s snap announcement to phase out some of its most draconian COVID policies. Baidu’s map began showing in real-time the stock status of antigen test kits at local pharmacies, of which demand has surged after China removed compulsory, heavily-subsidized nucleic acid tests. According to JD’s online marketplace, the transaction volume of rapid test kits rose 344% week over week on December 10.

Partly thanks to China’s persistence on zero-COVID, some of the infrastructure for infection prevention is already in place. Smartphone-enabled contactless ordering at restaurants is already a norm across the country. Pickup kiosks that temporarily store food deliveries are also a common sight, doing away with the need for customers and couriers to meet in person.

Some sectors are less resilient to COVID impact. The logistics industry is particularly under pressure as couriers are expected to get hit by the virus like the rest of society, while the demand for express delivery climbs as people rush to hoard medications and isolated individuals rely on grocery delivery. Factory bosses who worry that outbreaks would shut down manufacturing have invested in robots, but many of them are finding the costs of upgrading production lines too high in the short run, some of them told TechCrunch.

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