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The pandemic virus, 2019-nCoV, is testing many of the assumptions of a highly interconnected, modern, globalised world. This 120nm virus, small to us, large by viral standards, is shining a light on many of our ways of living. It is a clash between traditional lifestyles, civets and bats in a ‘wet market’, and a technocratic, intraconnected China of high-speed rail, WeChat, drones and more.
Image from Innophore
The epidemic has had a mild personal impact. A trip to Hong Kong cancelled, replaced by early morning video conference calls. Cathay Pacific and Marriott are the losers of this adaptation.
More strikingly, the outbreak has showed the strengths and weakness of our interconnected world. It’s making me wonder, are we resilient enough?
How might the new coronavirus change our world?
Reinforce the power of scientific collaboration and the open-sourcing of global threats.
European countries started Influenza Net in 2003 to track flu symptoms as reported by individuals; Flu Near You started in the US in 2011. Lauren Gardner, a civil engineering professor at Johns Hopkins and the co-director of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering, led the launch of a real-time map of the spread of the 2019-nCoV.
A group of online archivists have created an open-access directory of 5000+ scientific studies about coronavirus that anyone can access for free: ‘It’s illegal, but it’s also a moral imperative.’ Interesting contrast: a large number of critical Ebola research was inaccessible during the outbreak, and even today downloading a single paper could cost $45: a steep price for a healthcare worker in Liberia. A number of major scientific publishers, including Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature, have removed their paywalls to recent studies related to the new coronavirus.
Baidu has opened up its RNA prediction algorithm LinearFold, to global researchers. They claim to reduce the prediction time of a virus’s RNA secondary structure from 55 minutes to just 27 seconds. Tencent, Baidu, and the National Supercomputing Center in Shenzhen have all opened up their compute resources for use. (h/t Jeff Ding.)
Digital quarantines through better information and social credit systems.
The Chinese authorities are using computerised systems that track IDs to round up people from Wuhan and separate them from others, although ‘across the country, the response from local authorities often resembles the mass mobilizations of the Mao era rather than the technocratic, data-driven wizardry depicted in propaganda about China’s emerging surveillance state. They have also turned to techniques Beijing used to fight the outbreak of SARS, another deadly disease, in 2002 and 2003, when China was much less technologically sophisticated.’
EV reader, Dev Lewis, who recently briefed us on social credit in China, tells me that he thinks that 2019-nCoV might catalyse discussions within the Chinese Communist Party about how digital IDs could be used to manage epidemics in the future.
Reinforce the importance of genomic technologies.
During the SARS outbreak, it took scientists about five months to sequence the virus; it was done by the US and Canadian scientists. It took Chinese scientists one month to sequence 2019-nCoV.
The cost of genomic sequencing has declined faster than Moore’s Law, as our friends at Ark Invest show.
However, front line testing from swab samples is still rare and expensive. A real-time reverse transcription PCR test costs closer to $100 than $10, making it a costly undertaking. 2019-nCoV will increase the long-term demand for such testing, so it can be done more rapidly and closer to the front line.
Dev Lewis, who is based in China, tells me: ‘Tencent announced they are pushing the date to return to office until the end of February, but everyone will now work from home. Tsinghua University is starting on its original schedule, but online. But beyond work, we’re seeing it with gyms (trainers live-streaming classes you can join from home). I think we’ll see a lot more playful use cases emerge especially with the live-streaming culture already established. Work from home is very much not part of the mainstream culture here and I’m hoping some of that sticks as people (and companies) see the value.’
2019-nCoV is creating the world’s largest remote working experiment.
Meituan has introduced contactless food delivery, where your takeaway is left at a designated area. KFC and Pizza Hut are offering the same service. China’s largest classifieds site 58.com and real estate platform Anjuke offered limited-time VR and live streaming services to allow buyers to select a house without ever visiting in person.
While many in white-collar jobs can work from home, many workers cannot. In some cases, delivery workers need to record their temperatures on the delivery slips to prove they are fever-free. The high-flying food delivery services have been badly hit.
Encourage self-sufficiency especially around food, energy and products.
Global supply chains are going to notice that Chinese factories are not filling them up. The vulnerability to this single point of failure will become increasingly apparent. Our globalised, off-shored manufacturing is looking like the ‘anti-internet’: interconnected, yet dependent on a large super node rather than networked, decentralised and resilient.
Vertical farming could allow some kind of food sustainability at a community or city level. As it is, advanced hydroponic vertical farms use fewer water resources and have lower transport miles than traditional crops. Often they are pesticide and herbicide-free. Here is one example of vertical farms being rolled out to some US campus universities, presumably for those students who don’t do beer and pizza. (Japan seems to have taken the lead in vertical farming, according to the FT.)
Local manufacturing will be increasingly important. Given the specialist nature of products, there won’t be an iPhone factory in every city. But rather, 3-d printing is increasingly coming of age.
Lend support to the nativists, populists, statists and wall-builders.
Coronavirus gives every reason to build digital walls to close borders, isolate particular groups, stigmatise certain behaviours and fuel distrust against groups identified as ‘other’. (Take for example the rise in prejudice against British Chinese in the UK.)
At the same time, the current crisis is shaking up China’s formidable regime. As Bill Bishop points out:
The Party propaganda machine is working hard to control the messaging but the revelations that there were medical professionals in Wuhan trying to warn about this virus back in December but were silenced by the stability maintenance apparatus has provoked an uproar. [...] This is as close to an existential crisis for Xi and the Party that I think we have seen since 1989.
The Chinese developed their own modality of samizdat by posting online reviews of the HBO series, Chernobyl, to side-step online censors. China already suffers from a huge trust deficit, between the state and provincial governments, between the state and citizens, citizens and provincial governments, businesses and the state… you get it… the current epidemic won’t bolster that trust. So what might fill the gap?
We are in very interesting territory right now.
Would love to hear your thoughts below,
P.S. Tomorrow, I’m sending out an analysis of the Social Credit System in China for members.