• The coronavirus outbreak presents a global health and economic crisis.
  • Chinese companies are stepping up to contribute to the response.
  • Efforts include updating infrastructure, fighting misinformation and providing virtual work and education tools.

As Beijing tries to get back to business this week after the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus COVID-19, we still face a lot of uncertainty about how the situation will evolve over the coming weeks and months. What is clear, however, is the overwhelming corporate response in China to join the international fight against this outbreak.

Here are five ways Chinese companies are taking action to combat coronavirus and help those most affected.

1. They're working to keep supply chains running.

It’s natural that an initial corporate response to the outbreak has focused on supply chain logistics, not only given China Inc.’s incredible depth of experience in this field, but also because it is critical in a crisis to ensure there is enough supply of materials including surgical masks, disinfectant, protective suits and safety goggles for the front-line medical workers.

For example, corporations including Alibaba, Baidu, Bank of China, ByteDance, China Construction Bank, China COSCO Shipping Corporation, China Merchants Group, Envision Energy, Fosun Group, Guangzhou Pharmaceutical, JD.com, Mengniu, Ping An, SinoChem, Sinopec, Tai Kang Insurance, Tencent, Xiaomi, Yili and others have donated large volumes of healthcare, food and other supplies to the affected areas. Manufacturers including BYD, Foxconn, Guangzhou Automobile Group Co. and SAIC-GM-Wuling are setting up makeshift assembly lines to produce additional masks and disinfectants.

Alibaba’s grocery chain HEMA (Freshippo) committed to a policy of remaining open for business, not raising prices and remaining stocked with necessary supplies. The company's logistics arm, the Cainiao Smart Logistics Network, teamed up with a dozen logistics partners to launch a “Green Channel” initiative that expedites fast and safe delivery of medical supplies from around the world to the affected areas.

Express delivery and errand-running service platforms including 58.com and SF Express are also playing a role in delivering essential supplies to residents. In adddition, Dongfeng-Xiaokang donated vehicles to facilitate the transport of supplies in Wuhan, and JD Logistics deployed autonomous ground robots for last-mile delivery of supplies in Wuhan hospitals.

2. They're providing necessary infrastructure updates.

The shortage of hospital beds for infected patients has been another major challenge companies have worked to address. Two notable examples of speed and efficiency include the construction of the 1000-bed Huoshenshan Hospital and the 1600-bed Leishenshan Hospital in Wuhan, both built in under 10 days.

An aerial view shows the newly completed Huoshenshan Hospital, a dedicated hospital built in 8 days to treat coronavirus patients, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 2, 2020. China Daily via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. - RC29SE9M1W1B
This hospital was built in under 10 days.
Image: REUTERS

Other companies have been working in less visible but essential ways. For example, State Grid Corporation of China made significant efforts to guarantee the power supply to key facilitates, and Far East Smarter Energy Co. Ltd worked to lay network cables for the newly built hospitals. Huawei and China Telecom jointly set up a 5G-enabled remote video diagnostic centre, which enables medical staff to conduct remote online consultations with potential patients.

3. They're fighting misinformation.

In today’s hyper-connected online world, fake news, rumour and misinformation can travel faster than any pathogen. Many companies are offering new tools to share reliable information and counteract myths.

For example, Baidu created a map layer on top of the standard Baidu Map App that shows real-time locations of confirmed and suspected cases of the virus so that people can avoid more-affected areas. Qihoo 360 launched a platform where travellers can check if anyone on their recent train or plane trips has since tested positive so that they can take appropriate self-quarantine measures or visit the hospital if symptoms appear.

To provide reliable medical information, Tencent “Medipedia,” a healthcare encyclopaedia, has included new entries on the relevant symptoms, medical treatment and preventive measures, which are edited and reviewed by renown medical experts. Tencent also launched out-patient clinic map to allow users to look for the nearest clinics and “JiaoZhen” a myth-busting platform that helps users discern fact from myth.

In order to make access to good care even more readily available, Ping An’s “AskBob,” a doctor’s AI assistant, now offers a one-stop portal for virus-related updates and advice. In addition, JD Health, Ping An “Good Doctor,” UnionPay’s “YunShanFu” and others have launched free online health consultation services.

What medicines will treat the new coronavirus?
Raising awareness of the facts.
Image: Image: World Health Organization

4. They're helping people get back to work and school – virtually.

The outbreak has turned China into a testbed for remote work and education.

Millions of workers are now using tools including Alibaba’s “DingTalk,” Tencent’s “WeChat Work” and “Meeting,” ByteDance’s “Feishu” and Huawei’s “WeLink” for online workplace collaboration. These tools have added new features in the past weeks, including increased quota of video conference participants and call times, online health check-ins and industry-specific solutions. In addition, ByteDance has offered free use of the commercial version of “Feishu” for three years for all SMEs, street communities, NGOs, hospitals, and medical institutions.

For the time being, schools and universities in China remain closed indefinitely to avoid the spread of the virus. To minimise the impact of school postponements, online education platforms such as Liulishuo, Onion Academy and Zuoyebang are offering free online classes to school students nationwide. Both Alibaba’s DingTalk and Tencent Education have launched online classrooms, enabling teachers and professors to conduct online courses from home.

At the same time, to minimize the impact on unemployment, both Alibaba and JD.com launched a talent-sharing plan to hire short-term staff from temporarily affected sectors, including restaurants, bars and small shops that are closed by law or have simply shut due to lack of customers, for flexible job openings in e-commerce and supermarkets. To support small and medium-size businesses, Alibaba, Meituan-Dianping and Pinduoduo are offering merchants and couriers subsidies and low-interest loans to mitigate short-term risks and damage.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about epidemics?

Epidemics are a huge threat to health and the economy: the vast spread of disease can literally destroy societies.

In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases and to enable access to them during outbreaks.

Our world needs stronger, unified responses to major health threats. By creating alliances and coalitions like CEPI, which involve expertise, funding and other support, we are able to collectively address the most pressing global health challenges.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum to tackle global health issues? Find out more here.

5. They're sharing tech solutions to accelerate medical responses.

Some companies are developing or sharing their technological tools to support preparedness and response for this outbreak and future epidemics.

For example, to expand the supply capacity of virus detection products and accelerate the testing processes, the National Medical Products Administration (NMPA) of China has significantly simplified procedures for the approval of testing kits and gene-sequencing systems. BGI has also scaled up the production of its testing kits and donated them to Wuhan and established the Huoyan Laboratory, an emergency test laboratory that aims to speed up the testing of cases.

Alibaba Cloud has offered AI computing capabilities to public research institutions for free to support virus gene sequencing, new drug R&D and protein screenings. Baidu has opened up LinearFold, its RNA prediction algorithm, to genetic testing agencies, epidemic prevention centres and research institutes around the world. Neusoft Medical donated high-end CT scanners, AI medical imaging, cloud platform and remote advanced post-processing software to hospitals in Wuhan. Infervision launched a “Coronavirus AI solution,” an AI software for front-line clinicians to detect and monitor the disease on CT scans.

While it's important to consider the short-term benefits of these technological solutions, some efforts, such as companies launching fever detection systems with AI and thermal-imaging technology in major railway stations, also raise questions about long-term governance of these technologies.

Moving forward

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2020, the interconnectedness of our global business supply chains has made the world more vulnerable to societal and economic disruption from local infectious-disease outbreaks.

This epidemic will not be the last. Even as we fight this “Public Health Emergency of International Concern" (PHEIC), we must build on these examples to prepare for the risk and impact of a global pandemic.

Angela Ma, Community Lead, China Business Council and Forum Members, Greater China, and Wen Mao, Project Lead, Precision Medicine, collaborated in the creation of this article.