Medical Staff at Wuhan Railway Station. By China News Service. CC BY 3.0

Pandemic vs. the Internet

Telemedicine, big data, and O2O distribution in the time of Coronavirus

Bingjiefu He
Jan 31, 2020 · 5 min read

When hospitals are full and turning away patients, where do you go in the time of Coronavirus?

China’s healthcare system is stretched to its limits, even before the outbreak. Going to the hospital in China means bracing through crowded waiting areas, overworked doctors and nurses, and scalpers who resell appointment slots of specialists at exorbitant rates.

China has a doctor to patient ratio of 2.0 : 1000, amongst the lowest in the world, in comparison to the US (2.6) and Russia (4.0). The lack of general practitioners and clinics exacerbates the problem, and demands for medical care far outstrips supply, with the younger generation choosing other professions instead of medicine, due to low wages, high stress, and deteriorating public trust. Violence against medical professionals is common, with patients attacking doctors due to a perceived lack of care. Combined with an aging population, China is potentially facing an urgent healthcare crisis.

The Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan has blown the crisis wide open. Hospitals are filled to the brim, there is a critical shortage of medical supplies & protective gear, and feverish patients are being turned away and told to quarantine themselves at home at the time of Chinese New Year where families are gathered together often under the same roof. Although the government is building a pre-fab triage center with unprecedented speed, it is still too late for those who are in desperate need of care and diagnosis.

In comes telemedicine to the rescue — WeDoctor, the telemedicine platform supported by Tencent, one of China’s biggest internet giants, has recruited 13,000+ doctors around China for online diagnosis and care. Users can access this service for free through Tencent’s super-app — WeChat, and be connected to a volunteer doctor in seconds. Alibaba also jumped into the fray with its subsidiary AliHealth, which offers free diagnosis services for those in Wuhan with its super-app — AliPay.

Telemedicine has been a growing sector in China, explicitly designed to ease the burden on China’s overcrowded hospitals. Patients can make appointments, purchase medications, and receive a rudimentary diagnosis through these platforms.

O2O as Supply Lines

O2O is just a fancy way of saying Online to Offline — this could be ordering deliveries through Grubhub, shopping on Amazon, or calling for an Uber on your smartphone.

In China, armies of young men roam the streets, dressed in distinctive vests, delivering items ranging from bubble tea and bandages to homecooked meals. Tens of thousands of drivers ferry countless passengers every day for DiDi, China’s equivalent of Uber. Dog-sitters, nannies, cleaners, and even masseurs can be booked with a click of a button, and arrive at your doorstep in under an hour. The vast O2O system in China has been designed to satisfy the whims of China’s new urbanite generation, glued to their smartphones 24/7.

And in the time of Coronavirus, this network has become the lifesaver for doctors in hospitals and for those who are trapped at home in Wuhan. As supplies dwindle in supermarkets, HeMa, the grocery delivery service under Alibaba, has been coordinating emergency food shipments across China to be shipped to Wuhan. Meanwhile, couriers working for Meituan, China’s most prominent food delivery company, has been delivering food to those trapped at home under quarantine, and to doctors in hospitals. In terms of transportation, although DiDi suspended its service in Wuhan, it has organized its drivers into a tactical team, ferrying doctors, nurses, and supplies between hospitals and clinics.

Big Data for Detection

The Chinese government is no stranger to big data — metadata aggregated from smartphones has been used to track movements of the Chinese population, and facial recognition checkpoints are employed in all major transportation hubs. The preferred method of payment in major cities is usually WeChat or AliPay, making metadata more potent than ever for surveillance.

The period of Chinese New Years tends to be chaotic, as people race home to their families. Dubbed “ChunYun,” this yearly migration could prove to be deadly in the time of Coronavirus, as people rub shoulder to shoulder in airports, trains, and subways. Metadata aggregated from navigation apps, particularly from Baidu Map, has proven to be tremendously useful in tracking migration patterns outwards from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. Several provincial governments already admitted to using these data in identifying high-risk travelers coming into their borders.

Internationally, researchers are already scrambling, employing machine learning in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) to monitor the outbreak. Social media analysis has also been deployed at Johns Hopkins by researchers, employing methods such as sentiment and keyword analysis as tools in predictive analytics in order to track and potentially predict the patterns of transmission.

Open-Sourced Coordination

Wuhan’s hospitals are lacking in critical supplies — masks, protective gear, and detection kits. Typically, governmental authorities would step in and coordinate resupply efforts, but the organization designated by the government for central coordination, the Hubei Red Cross, has been mired in bureaucracy and does not possess enough resources to coordinate proper distribution of donated supplies.

In comes Wuhan 2020, a project maintained on GitHub that’s designed to maximize resource distribution efficiency. The project was created by anonymous Chinese programmers, acting as a bulletin board for equipment needs by different hospitals. Wuhan 2020 is entirely open source, maintained by volunteers that act as information filters to maximize efficiency and prevent erroneous postings.

Final Thoughts

China has been at the forefront of internet integration for the past few years. The implementation of telemedicine, O2O distribution, and big data in this outbreak, shows that the internet ecosystem in China is resilient enough to at least take up a portion of the burdens brought on by the Coronavirus. Perhaps these novel applications could point a new direction for disaster relief in the future, one that is fully integrated from online to offline.

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Bingjiefu He

Written by

PR Consultant, Writer, China Expert. Currently job hunting. Visit my personal website at

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

Bingjiefu He

Written by

PR Consultant, Writer, China Expert. Currently job hunting. Visit my personal website at

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

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