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Outbreak could catalyse China's smart city innovation

Security guards outside Wuhan's Huanan Seafood Wholesale market, where the virus first surfaced. The death toll in China has risen to 25.

Hong Kong

THE metropolis of Wuhan, with a population of 11 million, is under unprecedented quarantine as a deadly virus, believed to have originated there, spreads around the world ahead of the Lunar New Year when hundreds of millions of Chinese travel.

Big investments in healthcare, artificial intelligence, and even surveillance could help curb future pandemics and cushion some institutional weaknesses.

A new strain of coronavirus, responsible for the benign common cold and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, has already killed 25 people and infected more than 800 worldwide since its emergence in Wuhan in December.

China scientists promptly informed global health organisations but local bureaucrats may have procrastinated in the early stages of the outbreak. The situation is worsened by chronic under-investment in basic healthcare infrastructure like hospital beds, plus exclusion of migrant workers from health benefits, which has complicated containment.

The future may be less grim: President Xi Jinping has pushed to upgrade the country's rickety healthcare system, enlisting technology giants including US$474 billion Tencent and insurance group Ping An. A unit of the latter has partnered with local governments in Shenzhen and Chongqing to develop an algorithm it claims can predict the transmission of influenza and other infectious diseases with 90 per cent-plus accuracy. Elsewhere, the likes of US$50 billion video-surveillance specialist Hikvision are helping Beijing develop high-tech, digitally-connected urban areas.

More than 500 so-called smart cities are already being built across China, according to government figures, equipped with sensors, cameras, and other gadgets that can crunch data on everything from traffic and pollution, to public health and security. That market could top 103 billion yuan (S$20 billion) in revenue by 2023, according to research commissioned by facial-recognition startup Megvii.

Until now the push has focused on automating political surveillance, including controversial applications in restive ethnic minority regions like Xinjiang, with little regard to human rights or privacy concerns.

But there's a potential public good if the tech can be re-deployed to detect unusual numbers of feverish people in train stations, for example, while simultaneously cross-referencing healthcare history, travel records and weather patterns. After Wuhan, the pressure to deliver health security, not just political security, will be higher. REUTERS

  • The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own