“For the past 50 days or so I have been ending my days at midnight with swollen feet and three totally drained mobile phone power banks,” said Tom Ding, a grass-roots Communist Party member in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the Covid-19 outbreak started.
The 35-year-old has been a “grid controller” for the past five years, responsible for overseeing around 1,000 residents in the city’s Jiangan neighbourhood.
Ding is one of the 12,000 frontline foot soldiers in Wuhan, which is divided into more than 10,000 “grids” for monitoring and social control purposes.
Each grid is assigned a controller like Ding, who is responsible for keeping an eye on all activities in their assigned neighbourhoods and reporting any unusual activities to their bosses.
Following the outbreak, these grid controllers have been given the extra task of keeping an eye on residents’ health and ensuring they get the food and medicine they need.
Besides taking the temperature of every resident and distributing thermometers to whoever needs one, the grid controllers also ask each household to have at least one representative join the grid’s WeChat group so they can report their body temperature to the controllers every day.
“In battling this coronavirus epidemic, we might have created something unprecedented in China’s public administration history: forming instant messaging groups that cover almost the entire population of 11 million in Wuhan,” Ding said.
“Looking back, I am surprised by what we have built. You know how hard it is these days just talking to people let alone actually having the whole family responding to you on a messaging app.”
On his mobile phone, Ding is constantly inundated with messages from residents. Using the messaging app, the residents report to him their body temperature, ask for help when necessary, and place their orders for groceries as well as their daily medical prescriptions.
Ding and three other colleagues are responsible for ensuring their requests are met and also use messaging apps to disseminate information about the outbreak to the public.
Ding’s team typically delivers about 200 grocery and medicine packages every day to the residents as delivery men are no longer allowed access to homes.
“My arms are numb after delivering them to the residents. It’s tough especially when some families order [heavy items like] rice or cooking oil,” he said.
Ding also said he was particularly careful when delivering medicine to homes because “if we mix up an order, some old folk’s life will be at risk and the whole family will come down hard on us”.
After incidents of angry Wuhan residents yelling “It’s all fake!” at Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan during a visit to the city earlier this month, Ding and his team have also been warned to make sure that they answer to the residents’ needs.
Building and managing such groups has been energy-consuming for Ding and his phone. Charging all three power banks every night before he goes to bed has become a “second nature” to Ding and he said that over the past 50 days he has been averaging 15,000 steps a day.
Wuhan first went into lockdown on January 23, forcing Ding and his colleagues to swing into action.
He said his busiest period came in mid-February when the city’s new party chief Wang Zhonglin ordered cadres to locate all suspected cases of infection and send them away for isolation.
“Before that, Wuhan was confused and disorganised. We, at the lowest level of the government, were not sure on what to do. The instructions were vague,” Ding said.
“But after Wang came to Wuhan, everyone could feel the heat. He ordered anyone who failed to locate suspected patients within three days to answer to him directly.”
He said grid coordinators like him often had to improvise solutions to reduce the danger they faced because they had not been given protective clothing by the authorities.
“We have to make do with what we have. We take whatever comes our way when we do our job. My team uses shoe covers to cover our hair, industrial-grade eye protectors and cling film to protect our eyes,” Ding said.
Ding and his team have been instructed not to come within two metres of residents’ doors to minimise the risk of infection. “Some families only have senior citizens who have hearing problems, we have to speak loudly and repeat many times before they can hear us,” he said.
The WeChat groups built by Ding and his colleagues and the household data they collected formed the basis for Wuhan’s big data and AI control system that the World Health Organisation credited with playing “a significant role in China’s response to Covid-19”.
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Gabriel Leung, dean of the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the WHO mission, said China had made great strides on Covid-19 research thanks to the country’s “good old social distancing and quarantining” which was “very effectively done because of that on-the-ground machinery at the neighbourhood level facilitated by AI and big data”.
On February 29, Ying Yong, the newly appointed provincial party boss of Hubei province, said relying on the police’s big data platform had allowed the Wuhan government to build an effective epidemic prevention and control system “in recent days”.
But Ding said this all rested on the old-fashioned technique of going door-to-door in each neighbourhood.
“Without the data collected by the thousands of people like us, their data system would have no data at all, and their artificial intelligence will not be intelligent at all,” Ding said.
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