The social support networks stepping up in coronavirus-stricken China

Below the sweeping centralized measures, decentralized networks have provided relief to thousands.

Mi You
17 March 2020, 11.21am
The first batch of medics are scheduled to depart Hubei as the epidemic situation eases.
Shen Bohan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in China started in January 2019 and put a massive strain on the public health system. As a rapid response, the ironclad lockdown of tens of millions of people in the province of Hubei, and practical house confinement of hundreds of millions of Chinese, have hit pause on everyone’s daily routine.

During this time, new forms of organizational collaboration, from governmental agencies and businesses to media, from NGOs and first-aid groups to alumni networks and self-organized volunteer groups, began emerging. Volunteering has been widely practiced in China, and this time it has seen a boost from new organizational forms. The whole society self-mobilized in a way never seen before, forming social networks of support. Some offer relief and support to the frontline, some facilitate the needs of overlooked groups such as pregnant women, migrant workers, people with chronic diseases in virus-stricken regions, and others focus on keeping daily life running in other parts of China. What follows are observations on some of these social networks across scales and combining agency horizontally and vertically, all with a human touch.

Peer-to-peer networks and hackathons

The Internet and hacker communities were particularly quick to respond with information and network-powered solutions. Wuhan2020 is the largest open source initiative that establishes a real-time data service for hospitals, factories, procurement and donations, linking those in need and those with capacities to help. They also initiated the Hack for Wuhan hackathon that unites developers, designers, builders, and creators all over the world to find tech solutions to this special social condition. The proposed solutions include a platform that focuses on mental health during the lockdown, integrated information systems for tracking the real-time spread of the virus, and – heartwarmingly – a virtual kiosk where stories of receiving or giving spontaneous support in virus-ridden times could be exchanged.

Peer-to-peer networks do not necessarily need a sophisticated tech and information infrastructure. Immediately after Wuhan’s public transportation was suspended, volunteer drivers created a fleet to provide transportation to medics, restaurants offered working meals, and hotel owners self-organized a network of hotels that gave rooms for nearby medics to rest – days before the government made official requisitions.

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Elsewhere in the country, Kouzhao Shaobing (mask watcher) is a decentralized social initiative from a community of Douban users, a social media platform usually focusing on film, books and music. Mask watcher is a set of protocols that facilitates peer-to-peer mask sharing/giving locally. Mediated by local chat groups, people can post their urgent needs for masks, for example, when one needs to go to the hospital for checkups and does not have a mask. And others, who are in possession of masks but don’t need them just yet will answer the request and deposit the masks at an agreed location, usually a temporary storage for deliveries. The locality of the scheme means no third-party (a delegated person or delivery service etc.) is involved in the process, avoiding straining the already exhausted logistics system. Everyone can be a mask watcher; the task is not to be on the frontline but on the defense, to monitor and intervene when needed. Other self-help initiatives grew out of this, including taking care of cats and sending food for neighbors in need.

Kouzhao Shaobing.png
Kouzhao Shaobing’s graphic explainer. | Source: Kouzhao Shaobing

(The translation in the cartoon above reads: 1. “Only one mask left… What to do tomorrow when going out…” 2. “How’s everyone doing?” “Who could give me a mask? I need to go to the hospital tomorrow.” 4. “Successfully deposited. Please retrieve within 24 hours. Retrieval code…” 5. Ding-dong 6. “Please retrieve your delivery with the code 51984146 from the delivery deposit on the north side of building no. 2 in the residential compound”.)

Business-powered initiatives for the social good

If the self-initiated networks work mainly on the information and service front, then businesses with a stake in supply chains and logistics have contributed their part in integrating the supply of goods in increasingly collaborative ways.

When thousands of tons of vegetables were left to rot in rural farms due to shutdowns of agricultural wholesale markets throughout the country, Pinduoduo, a popular e-commerce platform for group buying deals, launched a campaign on February 10th to help farmers distribute their produce directly to group buyers in cities. Farmers livestream from their storage and showcase their products to buyers nationwide – this has been a popular feature on Chinese e-commerce platforms for a while, though this time it is especially promoted by the platform. In some agriculture-heavy cities and counties, even officials joined the livestreaming to promote their products.

The Pinduoduo grouping mechanism encourages buyers to share their reviews of products among real-life friends, creating a network of trust and a sense of participating in a social cause. The personal touch to Pinduoduo further accelerates sales in this unusually dark time. The New E-Commerce Research Institute People’s Daily has given official recognition to these organizational and business models for stabilizing agricultural supply chains in its latest report issued in March (link to the report in Chinese). Business journalism, too, has focused on the business aspects of it. Yet beyond business, it is the social relationships Pingduoduo creates that may outlast the epidemic.

Two live streaming sessions on Pinduoduo | Source: China Business Network

In early February, most restaurants, including the biggest restaurant chains, were running low on cash flow due to near-total shutdown of business, mounting rental costs and importantly, payable salaries. At the same time, fresh foodstuff delivery platforms such as Hema and Meiri Youxian and big supermarkets such as Walmart with their own delivery services were short of delivery staff. The two sides decided to join forces. Since then, restaurants have shared their storage and food-processing capacity with the foodstuff delivery platforms, and tens of thousands of restaurant staff have worked as delivery drivers. This has ensured timely and sufficient supply of fresh food in cities where hundreds of millions of people have voluntarily or involuntarily stayed at home.

For the workers filling in the gap of increasing demand, their labor conditions do not necessarily change: they work for their hard-earned wage. The public are showing their acknowledgment for this indispensable group by leaving words of gratitude in the comment section of the delivery orders.

One can always be critical of the platform economy. Yet what we are witnessing is an unconventional transformation: sharing orders and logistical capacity from various stages of the supply chain works against the centralizing and gatekeeping logic of the big platforms. Data commons and progressive data economy advocates are proposing portability and interoperability of data shared across different service providers as key features of the next generation data economy, enabling collaboration and co-creation of value and services. The Chinese cases here show that there are more sharable resources than data alone – and in ways that are fair and create value for everyone. Here, businesses actively reach out to pressure points in the society, and match the business value network (instead of single value chains) with social values and emerging social collaborative networks. These new relationships enable empowerment in multilateral ways. Many believe this collaborative mode will outlive the crisis and become a sustained practice.

The last mile

In late January, the Chinese government enacted probably the most stringent measures of quarantine and movement control in history. Such a top-down structure has its pros and cons. While at national, provincial and city levels, medical resources and staff nation-wide were allocated to the frontline, the smallest administrative levels in urban areas – neighborhoods and residential communities – presented a ‘last mile’ problem. Each administrative unit consists of neighborhoods counting tens of thousands of residents, where public employees have taken on the task of blanket screening each family with thermometers and reporting suspected cases. They were also responsible for registering incoming and outgoing residents, providing basic supplies to people in need, and arranging transportation in locked down areas. Volunteers across the country joined their local community maintenance work.

Still, during the most hazardous time in early February in Wuhan, when many were infected yet had to stay home due to a massive shortage of care units in the hospital, public employees too were acutely understaffed and short of protection supplies. At this critical junction, a vertically and horizontally organized volunteer team came to the relief of the problem. Organized by the Guojia Renwen Lishi (National Humanity History) magazine of People’s Daily, it’s a contact channel on social media platforms Wechat and Weibo that allowed people in desperate situations to report their needs, and a group of around 2000 volunteers, named Yaya Volunteer Group after the initial team member, worked 24/7 to verify the cases by directly speaking to the people on phone.

Many calls for help were circulating on social media at the time, and not everyone knew which channels were effective. When this contact channel was established, some cases were reported by family members of patients directly, but many others came through via internet users who happened to have seen a relevant case and forwarded it to this channel. Among these cases were whole infected families in critical condition and not being able to travel to the hospital, infected single households without food supply for days, and severe cases of psychological breakdown due to the passing of loved ones. The most urgent cases were reported to the supervision team of the central government thanks to the backing of Guojia Renwen Lishi. During the ten days of their operation, they made crucial contacts between local hospitals, livelihood and psychological support teams and the people concerned. A gloomy time for many, including for the volunteers themselves, yet with their consistent work, they created a lifeline for thousands.

The world has witnessed China’s sweeping centralized measures against the coronavirus, sometimes with awe and sometimes with criticism. These cases give a picture from various levels below. At each level, decentralization plays a crucial role and importantly, it is not categorically against collaborations with social, business and state agents at other levels. These are vertical and horizontal social networks of support in the broadest sense of the word ‘social’ and for the interest of the broadest groups. They are created ad hoc, and some are no longer necessary as the situation eases at the time of writing, yet the social networks they interweave will continue and take on new meanings.

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