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China Is Using Drones to Bust People Not Wearing Facemasks Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak

Drones have also been used to deliver food to residents. Hilariously innovative or too Big Brother-ish?
February 6, 2020, 7:05am
china drone coronavirus facemask
For illustrative purposes only. (L) Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash. (R) Photo by Chastagner Thierry on  Unsplash

As people in China battle the Wuhan coronavirus, drones are now in the spotlight for their role in creative outbreak management tactics.

A twitter post by Chinese news agency Global Times shows a video compilation of drones targeting people on the streets who are not wearing masks or are out in public unnecessarily.

“Yes, auntie, this is the drone speaking to you,” a voice coming from the drone said to an elderly woman walking in public without a face mask in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region located in Northern China. “You’d better go back home and don’t forget to wash your hands.”

Another clip shows the drone singling out a man on the road and the voice publicly shaming him for not wearing a face mask. “The dude with a pink coat on your motorbike! Yeah, it’s you! Please put on your mask,” the voice said.

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A man in Inner Mongolia who was caught shovelling snow with his cart also became an unfortunate target of the drone. “Don’t laugh, now get on your cart and go home immediately.”

That China is a surveillance state is no secret. But before we hastily write this episode off as yet another brazen infringement of personal freedom in Chinese totalitarian fashion, it appears that some of the clips featured are a civilian initiative.

“I saw that some people in other countries use drones in their videos to communicate with people. I happen to have a drone which can do that too, so I thought of using it to spread messages about virus prevention. The elderly lady in the video is from our village. She refused to listen to advice and insisted on going out multiple times without a mask, so the village committee used my drone to monitor her,” said Guo Junjie, a local social media influencer who has nearly 200,000 followers online.

Apparently, the strategy is working. The village committee spokesperson told Beijing News that using a drone was more effective than other measures they’ve been using to raise awareness about virus prevention, such as patrolling and broadcasting reminders.

Drones are also employed by the police in Ruichang City, Jiangxi province to disperse group gatherings of any kind, a video shared by Global Times on Weibo shows.

Under diligent drone surveillance, gossip sessions among neighbours and open-air card games don’t stand a chance.

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“Throw your cigarette away, put on your mask,” the voice from the drone boomed over a man taking a smoke break. “Do you hear me? I’m talking to you!”

People don’t seem too bothered, though. After all, surveillance drones cannot be that surprising in a place where facial recognition technology is used for everything, from making payments to catching jaywalkers.

“This is hardcore (thumbs up),” a Weibo user commented.

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Photo from Weibo

“This situation makes me feel bad for them but also makes me want to laugh, sigh…” said another comment.

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Photo from Weibo

Surveillance is not the only way that drones are being deployed amid the coronavirus outbreak.

In one neighbourhood, drones are used to take temperatures of residents in order to minimise human-to-human contact.

In a village in Shandong province, free vegetables and instant noodles are delivered to residents via drones. A Weibo video by Chinese broadcaster btime.com shows eager villagers receiving bags of provisions dangling from a drone. According to the video, the drone was previously used to spray pesticides on crops. It is now used for delivering resources and disinfecting villages.

With the coronavirus threat ringing alarm bells across the country, drones are just the latest tool Chinese people are using to cope with the health crisis. Hilariously innovative or too big brother-ish? You decide.

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This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.