Uber for grave visits? Tech fills unique niches in shut-in China

Linda J. Dodson

TOKYO — Strict restrictions China has placed on people’s movement to contain the coronavirus have spawned a throng of online services that were once unimaginable, from virtual grave visits to neighborhood maps of COVID-19 patients.

As China celebrated its annual Qingming Festival in early April, people could not make it to the graves of relatives and friends as they do every year. So they turned to virtual visits touted by newly sprung-up websites.

The services, offered by provincial governments, let users place flowers or light incense at graves — tasks performed by dedicated staffers. The Shanghai website priced a standard visit at 35 yuan ($5), though some private-sector alternatives offered luxury packages costing around 1,000 yuan.

The Civil Affairs Ministry touted the “innovative grave visits” in an April 7 statement. Roughly 26.31 million people had used the websites, it said.

Online reporting on the central-government-backed initiative has been overwhelmingly positive. But judging by comments on similar services in the past, some people apparently feel the service falls short of paying proper respect to the dead. “Feels a bit light,” said one comment.

A map app shows the location of coronavirus patients in the neighborhood. (Photo by Shuhei Yamada)

Then there are map apps that show the locations of nearby coronavirus patients. Features include sorting patient locations by distance and seeing where new cases were found in the last 24 hours or week. While such knowledge could help users avoid the virus, it could also hurt the reputations of tenants in affected buildings and drive down property prices. Such a service is likely to raise privacy questions in Japan or elsewhere.

A free news site run by Tencent Holdings offers a fact-checking feature. Back in March, it flagged as fake the rumors that Tokyo would go under lockdown April 2. It also tags true or unproven information as such based on expert comments and its own investigations.

At first glance, many of these emerging services may seem like novelties. But JD.com grew from a humble streetside store into one of China’s leading online platforms in the SARS era of the early 2000s. The current pandemic could also birth another tech giant.

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