Coronavirus: Off to the traces

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Hello Quartz readers,

Last week we asked how you’re staying active. As it turns out, keeping up with the replies is our new favorite cardio. Here’s how some of you are passing the time:

  • In Switzerland, Wilson starts each day with a run in the countryside and some YouTube yoga, followed by a “compulsory, rain or pouring rain” afternoon walk.
  • In Zimbabwe, Arden is working out with physical education teacher Andrei Tyoschin, who posts gladiator fitness workouts online.
  • In the US, Linda is communing directly with nature. Here’s a shot she sent over of time spent “staying active, and inactive.” If only fitness was always this scenic.
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Okay, let’s get started.

Mind the app

Compared with Europe and the US, Asia has been much quicker to marshal big data in its efforts against coronavirus. Now, a government app in China that used digital barcodes to control citizen movements during the outbreak is poised to become a fixture in daily life.

Released in February with the help of Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial and social media giant Tencent, the app assigned people one of three codes—red, yellow, or green—based on travel history and other user-submitted information. Local authorities would then cross-reference the information with financial and transport data. A person assigned a green code could leave their home to ride on subways, access public buildings, and go to work, while yellow or red codes had to self-quarantine for various periods of time. Although use of the codes faded in several cities as new cases declined, there is renewed interest amid concerns about a second wave.

On May 23, Hangzhou, a Chinese city home to 10.3 million people, said it plans to “normalize” (link in Chinese) the use of the app, and turn it into a “‘firewall’ to enhance people’s health and immunity” after the pandemic recedes. Hangzhou’s health commission said it could someday use the codes to assign a health status based on people’s digital medical records and lifestyle habits, such as how many cigarettes they smoke, steps they walk, or hours they sleep daily. It will also use more colors, ranging from green to deep purple.

More than a billion people in China are already covered by the app, which was at one point made mandatory and added to Alipay, Ant’s digital payment wallet, as well as Tencent’s messaging app WeChat.

China is far from alone in digital tracing efforts. Singapore, for example, asked all of its citizens to download a Bluetooth tracing app in March, while South Korea has successfully used the timeline feature (pdf) of Google Maps to have citizens voluntarily record their locations. South Korea and Taiwan also used telecom data to make sure people didn’t break home quarantines.

This use of technology has raised concerns about privacy and “mission creep” after the pandemic—but no country has gone as far as China, where widespread surveillance already exists, and where many expect the government to use the pandemic to deepen its monitoring. “Hangzhou health code is getting extremely black mirror-esque…” tweeted Chenchen Zhang, an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Queen’s University Belfast. “…It’s not known yet what this ‘score’ can do. Just the latest [example] of governing by quantifying everything in China.”

Swan take

A “black swan” refers to an event with three attributes: It’s an outlier; it has extreme impact; and, despite its being an outlier, people will try to make sense of it after the fact. Does coronavirus count? Author and former Wall Street trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who coined the term, thinks not. “It was a white swan,” Taleb said in an interview with Bloomberg. “I’m so irritated people would say it is a black swan.”

Taleb’s argument is that the pandemic is not an outlier, because it was foreseeable. Deadly outbreaks such as Ebola, SARS, and H1N1 have occurred within the past two decades. In 2005, George W. Bush said: “If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare.” In his own 2007 book, The Black Swan, Taleb warned of the same possibility:

“As we travel more on this planet, epidemics will be more acute—we will have a germ population dominated by a few numbers, and the successful killer will spread vastly more effectively. I see risks of a very strange acute virus spreading throughout the planet.”

Want to know more about black swans? Go down the rabbit hole (swan hole?) with this Quartz Obsession email. You can also sign up for the Weekly Obsession to give your brain a recurring breather.

Use your words

Speaking of definitions, last month the Oxford English Dictionary added 20 new or updated coronavirus-related entries. Here are a few of them:

🧠 infodemic, n.: “A proliferation of diverse, often unsubstantiated information relating to a crisis, controversy, or event, which disseminates rapidly…”

🏠 self-quarantine, n.: “Self-imposed isolation undertaken in order to avoid catching or transmitting an infectious disease, or as part of a community initiative…”

👪 social recession n. (at SOCIAL adj. and n.): “a period of widespread deterioration in quality of life among members of a community, especially due to reduced interactions and weakened social bonds.”

💪 elbow bump n. (at ELBOW n.): “(a) a blow with or to the elbow; an injury resulting from this;  (b) a gesture (usually of greeting or farewell) in which two people lightly tap their elbows together as an alternative to a handshake or embrace, esp. in order to reduce the risk of spreading or catching an infectious disease.”

💻 WFH n. (at W n.): “working (or work) from home, either as a regular or permanent alternative to office work or on an occasional or temporary basis.”

Neighborhood watch

Everyone is impressed with their own ability to social distance—and unimpressed with their friends and family.

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently surveyed more than 1,000 US adults about their experiences with coronavirus and social distancing. More than half gave themselves an A for “excellent” when it came to following social-distancing guidelines—a grade only about 35% bestowed upon their neighbors. Some 24% of respondents gave their neighbors a grade of C or below, while only 11% of people graded themselves that poorly.

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Essential reading

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