27 Jan 2020 14:26 IST

Wuhan virus will shape China’s smart city vision

After Wuhan, the pressure to deliver health security, not just political security, will be higher

An epidemic will shape China’s vision of intelligent cities. 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 (as on January 24) and infected more than 800 worldwide since its emergence in Wuhan in December. Chinese 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 underinvestment 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 $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%-plus accuracy. Elsewhere, the likes of $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 ($15 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 ugly 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.