COVID-19: a turning point |
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COVID-19: a turning point

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By Khan Abdul Haseeb | | Updated: Jan 29, 2022

[Pakistan] Khan Abdul Haseeb, Nanchang University

Khan Abdul Haseeb works in the lab. [Photo provided to]

The year 2020 came the same as the previous New Year in my memory. This was my fourth year in China. As usual, with the arrival of the New Year, I have an unspeakable sense of excitement to celebrate the Chinese Spring Festival. I can clearly feel happiness, excitement and joy in the air. You can feel the festive atmosphere without being reminded by others.

As in previous years, a semester came to an end, all the exams were over, and everyone prepared to return home for the Chinese New Year. Occasionally I heard news about the spread of unknown viruses in Wuhan, but such news can’t stop everyone from going home on such an important festival as the Spring Festival. I clearly remember that on the night of January 21, I met my mentor, who was to return to his hometown. “Take care of yourself and take care of the laboratory, bye,” he said to me.

Then the last my lab mate left the laboratory for home, leaving me alone in the school and at the lab. That night, none of us knew what would happen next. I put together a collection of movies, TV dramas and books I had no time to watch over the past half a year. I was ready to take a week off and enjoy the holidays after a busy semester. What we didn’t know is that plans can’t keep up with the change.

On January 23rd, the central government decided to lock down Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province. That day, the world as we know it changed and hit the people living in China. China, which is my second home, was facing one of the toughest tests in its history.

A brand-new coronavirus was spreading among the population, people were dying because of it. No one seemed to know what was going to happen next, and the situation became complicated. Quarantines and other measures were quickly put in place, and people were asked not to leave their homes if not necessary. This was an extraordinary and unprecedented situation.

It was unthinkable to demand people to do this when it was almost New Year’s Eve. For many people who worked and studied abroad, this was the only opportunity of the year for them to return home and reunite with their family. However, people chose to react the government’s call and stay home without being nervous. The excitement I felt in the air turned into a heart-wrenching silence, a silence of the unknown, full of anxiety and stress.

Since ancient times, humans have lived together, worked together and formed an interdependent society. Yet no one was prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, and no one could have predicted its influence. In the early days, the economic impact of the pandemic could not have been predicted, but its culture shock was already daunting.

In the future, we will live in a bright society that embraces artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and computer vision (CV) to help us reshape our lives. With the help of sensory devices, we can monitor events beyond human capabilities. With the assistance of CV and AI, we don’t need to manually monitor who is sneezing, who is coughing, who is touching their face, who is working without protective gear.

It will be a future where great things can be accomplished without people taking risks, and the pandemic gives us a glimpse into such a future in China.

Khan Abdul Haseeb attends the graduation ceremony. [Photo provided to]

After the outbreak of the pandemic in China, Baidu Research Institute, a leader in AI research and development, open-sourced its LinearFold – a linear-time AI algorithm – to disease prevention and control centers, genetic testing organizations and research institutions around globe.

It reduced the time for predictive analysis of the RNA secondary structure of neo-coronavirus from 55 minutes to 27 seconds. Qihoo 360, a leading Chinese internet company, released its “Big Data Migration Map” in February, which users can access from their cell phones or computers to view migration trends in Chinese mainland from January 1, helping communities and local governments implement preventive and defensive measures.

Wing Chain Technology launched the nation’s first blockchain epidemic monitoring platform, which can track the incidence of new cases in each province in real time and upload relevant epidemic data for tracking. Alibaba’s Dharma Institute developed an AI algorithm for detecting neo-coronary pneumonia that can read 300-400 films in 20-30 seconds with an accuracy rate of 96%, while it takes an experienced doctor about 5-15 minutes to read one.

The system was used in more than 160 hospitals in China during the outbreak, scanning more than 260,000 clinical cases. In addition, Beijing-based startup Infervision developed a software that can detect pneumonia associated with respiratory diseases such as COVID-19 in less than 50 seconds by using CT slices. More than 76,000 suspected cases have been screened at 45 hospitals nationwide. AI plays a role in public places with high traffic and mobility, such as subway stations and train stations.

Wuhan High-Tech Infrared Co. Ltd. and other companies have proposed a new temperature measurement technology based on CV and infrared technology. This technology makes it possible to measure body temperatures in a non-contact, reliable and effective way without people even knowing about it. Related applications are numerous.

Meanwhile, that is not the whole picture. China is facing another war on the media reporting. Conspiracy theories began to emerge. Human Rights Watch claimed that the blockade of 11 million people was inhumane. Some false propaganda in the foreign media created unnecessary fear and confusion among the public. As an international student, far from home and family, I experienced this unnecessary “eye-catching” first-hand.

As an international student in my home country of Pakistan, my family was very worried about me, they heard that we were closed, no food, not allowed to meet, and so on. And the real situation was completely different from what people think. Yes, we were blocked, but it was a necessary measure at that moment. We weren’t allowed to go out, but that didn’t mean we were going to starve.

Our university has opened a grocery store in the International Exchange College dormitory to safeguard our needs. Whatever we need, they tried to meet it. They were teachers and it was neither their job nor their responsibility, but they understood that special measures were needed in this particular situation and they did a great and successful job. I am forever grateful for all they did for us.

They made it so much easier for us during this difficult time. Some students had to return home at the insistence of their families, and the school made it easy for them. They were transported to the airport or train station as needed. The students who stayed behind were cared for in every possible way.

The campus of Nanchang University [Photo provided to]

We were given thermometers to check our body temperatures and to report to the college authorities. We were given masks on a regular basis. Teachers also constantly asked if we had any questions or if we needed any help.

Keeping your distance is the only effective preventive measure against COVID-19 outbreaks, but it also increases anxiety and stress. As an international student, it is increasingly difficult for me to stay in a dorm and spend my days alone. Normally, it takes three to four months to develop a hobby or skill and reach a moderate level. But none of us were ready for that.

After two weeks of living in uncertainty, I felt the need to plan things out. I set up a schedule for my diet and studies and forced myself to follow it. I signed up for an online course to allow myself to devote more time to my studies. Since social media and news media spread mostly negative things, I decided to spend less time on these platforms.

I tried to stay positive and spend more time reading materials related to my PhD research and books on my book list, videoing with my family, friends in my home country and China, and also learning more about COVID-19. Slowly things got better and better.

Dealing with a severe crisis requires thousands of small decisions to be made in milliseconds, and there is a time when human capacity is exhausted. Therefore, we must embrace the future. We have been too afraid to hand over control to something more efficient - machines.

China’s practice has proven that the next generation of information technology has unique advantages and can play an important role in addressing major public health crises. After great success in China, Chinese companies are extending these technologies to countries around the world that are dealing with outbreaks. Other countries facing the COVID-19 outbreak should learn from China’s experience and use technology to win the war.

The outbreak of pandemic and its spread remind humanity that our interests are intertwined. We must share lessons learned and work together. We are facing the pain of losing loved ones, the inability to relieve their trauma and the grief of helplessness. Yet we should not be numb, we have to take steps to stay sharp and do our best to avoid any hatred and discrimination based on race, color, ethnicity, religion and nationality. We have to abandon our ego and unite against this disaster, only then we can have a chance to build this world a better place.

Time does not go backwards. The pandemic is not a single event, but an opportunity for transformation and turning point to make a shift in human civilization that we have been too afraid to embrace. This shift may lead to fears that could have been avoided if we had been well prepared. It changes us, but we are obsolete if we are still living in the past.

Living in the present, we need to look to the future. While the epidemic is a disaster, it also opens the door to something we had been ignoring. In the words of Stephen Hawking: “No matter how hard life seems, there is always something you can do and succeed. The important thing is to never give up.”

Now, the things are slowly recovering. Schools are back in session, and businesses are up and running. The silence in the air is still there, yet we have seen hope at the end of the dark tunnel. The light will shine again, and this mournful silence will turn back to excitement, joy and happiness.

The story is from "My Beautiful Encounter with China" Essay Competition organized by the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchanges (CSCSE).