Jon Alexander

May 4, 2020

10 min read

The Nation You’re Not Allowed To Learn From

What if I told you there was a country of 23 million people that had pretty much got Covid-19 sorted?

A country that had had just 6 deaths and 429 confirmed cases as of April 30th, despite the first of those cases being confirmed on January 21st, almost six weeks before the UK.

A country that had figured out how to do tracking and tracing in a way that was compatible with privacy concerns, and even increased the ability of citizens to hold their government to account.

A country that was right at the leading edge globally in the development of both tests and vaccines.

A country that had just kicked off the new season of its most popular sport, albeit with stadia populated only with the odd atmosphere-generating robot.

A country that had even found a way to control the spread of misinformation — a horrendous side of the Covid-19 story that most of us don’t even realise is a problem, let alone a problem that one country has found a solution to.

And what if, to cap all that off, I told you that this country lies only 80 miles off the coast of mainland China, and that its capital city in particular has extensive trading links with Wuhan?

Rakuten baseball “fans” — image originally via Sky News

Today, for the first time in human history, technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time. Fifty years ago, the KGB couldn’t follow 240m Soviet citizens 24 hours a day, nor could the KGB hope to effectively process all the information gathered. The KGB relied on human agents and analysts, and it just couldn’t place a human agent to follow every citizen. But now governments can rely on ubiquitous sensors and powerful algorithms instead of flesh-and-blood spooks.

If I could track my own medical condition 24 hours a day, I would learn not only whether I have become a health hazard to other people, but also which habits contribute to my health. And if I could access and analyse reliable statistics on the spread of coronavirus, I would be able to judge whether the government is telling me the truth and whether it is adopting the right policies to combat the epidemic. Whenever people talk about surveillance, remember that the same surveillance technology can usually be used not only by governments to monitor individuals — but also by individuals to monitor governments.