How COVID-19 Sparked a Silver Tech Revolution in China


SHANGHAI — Two months ago, Xu Wenyan didn’t even have a data plan on her phone. Now, the 62-year-old spends most of her day online.

Each morning, Xu orders groceries using a mobile app. Then, she listens to the news on her phone while cooking. Afternoons are for sharing photos of her freshly prepared dishes with her friends. After dinner, she and her husband often play around with a karaoke app, waiting eagerly for other users to comment on their performances.

Like millions of elderly Chinese, the spread of the novel coronavirus has forced Xu to embrace the digital world. As the country struggled to contain the virus, the markets, stores, and parks that she frequented in central Shanghai suddenly shut down — leaving her feeling helpless.

“I was really upset at first,” Xu tells Sixth Tone. “I didn’t even know how to deal with the meals, let alone find alternatives for other leisure activities.”

Though China’s cities are now slowly coming back to life, the country’s tech firms are hoping the lockdowns will prove to be a game changer, opening up a huge tranche of new users that were previously out-of-reach.

China has around 250 million people over 60, and this figure is expected to surpass 480 million by the middle of the century. In Shanghai, over one-third of residents are aged over 60.

In the past, Chinese seniors were far less likely to use digital services than younger generations. According to data released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2018, some 60% of people over 50 watch videos on their smartphones and just over half have used digital payment methods like Alipay and WeChat Pay. Around one-third of the group use navigation and online shopping apps, while only one-quarter use ride-hailing services.

But internet companies have reported a surge in business from elderly users since the outbreak began, according to Duan Mingjie, founder of AgeClub, a consulting firm that advises brands on how to target older-age customers.

“Many of our clients have witnessed significant growth in (elderly) users and sales of some of their paid services have increased 50%-80%,” says Duan. “The quarantines have encouraged the aging population to use apps to meet various needs in life.”

The biggest beneficiaries have been online grocery companies. Customers have turned to delivery services in droves to avoid visiting crowded supermarkets — or because they have been banned from leaving their residential compounds, as has happened in several virus-stricken areas.

During Spring Festival — when China was uncovering hundreds of new infections each day — Alibaba’s online supermarket Hema reported that orders were up 220% year-over-year. Sales for competitors Miss Fresh and JD.com’s online grocery platform, meanwhile, were up 350% and 470% during the same period, respectively.

New business from elderly users appeared to account for a significant chunk of these increases. According to Alibaba, the number of grocery orders placed by users born in the ’60s was four times higher than normal during Spring Festival. Miss Fresh claims its number of users aged over 40 has risen by 237% during the pandemic.

Xu and her husband started using grocery-ordering apps in late January. There’s a wet market just a 10-minute walk from the couple’s home, and Xu says she enjoys shopping there. But she became reluctant to go due to the shortage of face masks in Shanghai.

“My daughter has been trying to talk me into buying groceries using apps for over a year, and now I’m finally open to it,” says Xu.

The couple downloaded five apps on their daughter’s recommendation. Initially, however, the services didn’t turn out to be as convenient as they’d expected. The massive number of orders being placed, combined with the shortage of delivery drivers during Spring Festival, made it difficult for Xu to get the goods she wanted.

“I set an alarm to place orders for each app in the morning,” says Xu. The earliest would go off at 4:30 a.m. “I could mostly get what I wanted,” she adds. “I even sent some stuff to my daughter, as she couldn’t get up that early.”

Before the pandemic, Xu estimates, less than 10% of her friends had tried buying groceries online. Now, she says, nearly all of them have experimented with it. On the messaging app WeChat, her contacts are continually sending each other links to new items on the apps and tips on how to get good discounts.

The elderly have turned to tech to meet other needs, too. Chen Xianhua, a retired accountant from Shanghai, tells Sixth Tone she’s been ordering medicine and consulting doctors via health apps during the crisis. Meituan, one of the country’s largest delivery platforms, reported orders for medication related to chronic diseases including high blood pressure, diabetes, and arthritis increased by over 200% during Spring Festival.

Chen and her husband have also become big fans of the short video platforms TikTok and Kuaishou, which they downloaded for the first time in February. Chen says they mainly watch funny skits, videos of cute dogs, and livestreams of shows on the apps, as well as news about the pandemic.

“The whole social atmosphere is quite depressing at the moment — we need to keep our sense of humor,” says Chen. “Without these apps, I don’t know how my husband and I would ever stay optimistic.”

For the tech giants, the question is whether their new silver-haired users will stick around after the pandemic subsides. Several of them have already laid out strategies to target the elderly, judging it to be a growth market.

Miss Fresh has announced plans to roll out new services and product categories for older consumers, after seeing the potential in the market over recent weeks. Alibaba has already started down this path, launching a special senior-friendly version of its Taobao shopping app in 2018.

Chen, who first tried ordering groceries online six months ago, says she still prefers going to the wet market herself, because she enjoys chatting with her neighbors and bargaining with the vendors. But she’s come to value the apps, especially when it’s raining or she’s feeling tired.

“At first, I had concerns,” says Chen. “But then I found the vegetables I ordered online to be just as fresh as the ones I personally pick in the market … The app offers me an alternative.”

The 65-year-old has also gotten hooked on some of the app’s extra features, such as the “what to eat and cook” section, which suggests new recipes to try. She’s even started posting her own recipes on another cookery app she recently downloaded, as she enjoys reading the comments posted by other users.

“I’m keen on being active online, because I don’t want to be behind the times,” says Chen.

AgeClub founder Duan says elderly consumers often describe going through a similar shift in mindset during his company’s focus groups.

“This pandemic will have a significant impact, as it’ll make many elderly people who didn’t previously use the internet form new online consumption habits,” says Duan. “Once elderly users get used to the internet, they find there is far greater choice online.”

Xu is no longer getting up before dawn to secure a delivery slot, but she still enjoys surprising her daughter with her newfound tech savvy.

“My daughter said it had never occurred to her that one day I’d be ordering vegetables for her online,” she says. “It makes me feel useful and up-to-date.”


This article was published onSixth Tone.

Pets, Abandoned and Blamed, Struggle to Survive Virus Outbreak


Du Fan had made plans to travel north and spend the Spring Festival holiday with friends amid wintery scenes of ice and snow.

Instead, during a viral epidemic that began in his hometown Wuhan, Du is roaming a deserted city to break into strangers’ homes and rescue their pets.

As the city — the capital of central China’s Hubei province and the epicenter of an outbreak that has killed over 700 people and infected more than 34,000 as of Feb. 8 — closed itself off from the outside world on Jan. 23 to halt the spreading virus, millions of Wuhan residents were out of town with no way home.

Across China, measures enacted to stop the spread of 2019-nCoV, as the coronavirus is known, have affected businesses, people — and animals. Pets have been blamed for spreading the virus, willingly abandoned amid the crisis, or unintentionally left to fend for themselves.

Three days after the lockdown that put Wuhan’s roads, railways, and airport out of service, Du issued a notice on social media saying his nongovernmental organization Wuhan Small Animal Protection Association would help stranded pets for free. So far, the association has received more than 2,000 requests, mostly from people who expected to only be away for a few days and are now afraid their pets are running out of food and water.

Du’s team of 28 volunteers are in a race against time, maneuvering through a city of 14 million without the use of cars or public transportation. They have so far managed to save more than 400 pets, mostly cats. Still, they’re receiving more new requests than they can handle. “We will keep doing this until the city is unlocked,” Du tells Sixth Tone.

Left: A locksmith opens the door of an absent pet owner’s apartment; Right: A volunteer feeds pets left alone as a result of the lockdown in Wuhan, Hubei province, 2020. Courtesy of Du Fan

Left: A locksmith opens the door of an absent pet owner’s apartment; Right: A volunteer feeds pets left alone as a result of the lockdown in Wuhan, Hubei province, 2020. Courtesy of Du Fan

 

Before entering a house, Du will ask its stranded owners to record a video holding their ID card and stating that they allow the volunteers to get in. After entering with the help of a locksmith or a hidden key, they are greeted by hungry but elated animals. In one video Du posted on social media, a pig locked in a closed balcony hadn’t eaten for a week. “The balcony is a mess, and he has even chewed on the water basin,” Du said.

In another video, a cat was giving birth when Du arrived. Two of the kittens died, but the volunteers cleaned up and left enough food and water to last a fortnight, preventing a worse situation. “In the face of disaster, helping small animals is also what we humans should do,” Du says.

Elsewhere in China, animals and their caretakers have also been put in a bind by the outbreak and the measures enacted to stop it. In cities throughout the country, businesses have been advised to stay shut following the weeklong Lunar New Year break, which would have ended on Jan. 30 but has been extended to Feb. 9 in many places.

Chen Junren owns a pet store in downtown Shanghai, and this week opened up anyway. With a decade of experience, he knows it should be a busy time of year. “Usually around this time, the store should be filled with owners taking their dogs over to buy food and give them baths, but now it’s so empty,” Chen tells Sixth Tone. He has turned to selling online, but is quickly running out of goods, especially imported brands. Chen thinks China’s pet market, which has rapidly grown and last year exceeded 200 billion yuan ($28.8 billion) for over 100 million cats and dogs, will be affected for at least a year.

Chen is also facing a staffing shortage. “None of my employees have returned yet,” he says. Some of them celebrated Lunar New Year with their families in Hubei and cannot leave the province until the lockdown lifts. In any case, it might be a while before Chen gets help. Anyone arriving in Shanghai from elsewhere in China is asked to go into two weeks of self-quarantine.

But Chen is not alone. A 7-month-old shiba inu was sent to stay in his store by its owner, who is stuck in Wuhan. “I will take care of the puppy for him no matter what,” Chen says. “Pets are more important now than ever because, without their company, life would be so much harder at this moment.”

Vet clinics have also largely been ordered to stay closed. Zhang Fan, a veterinarian in Wuhan, thinks such measures might be counterproductive and harmful to public health. “Some pet owners may take their pets to other cities for medical treatment, which will increase the possibility of unnecessary population flow,” he says.

Many clinics have launched online consultations, though there are limits to what doctors can do from a distance. “But we will do our best to alleviate the difficulties and save the lives of as many pets as possible,” says Qin Kong, co-founder of Shanghai-based pet services company Petform. “Every life deserves respect.” They launched their online consultations on Jan. 30 and have already helped hundreds of customers.

For most pet owners, the biggest worry is whether they should still take their animals outside. Li Lanjuan, an epidemiologist and member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering, said in an interview with state broadcaster China Central Television last month that people should “more strictly control their pets,” and that “if your pet runs around outside and comes in contact with an infected person, it will need to be monitored. This virus is transmitted between mammals, so we should take precautions for mammals.”

Despite statements from both the World Health Organization and an expert at China’s National Health Commission refuting Li’s claim, suspicion toward pets has spread. In Weifang, eastern China’s Shandong province, and Taiyuan, a city in northern Shanxi province, districts have banned public dog-walking. In Wuxi, Jiangsu province, a neighborhood committee staff allegedly buried a cat alive after its owner was infected with the coronavirus, out of fear the feline could spread the disease.

Fang Ling, the founder of a pet hotel in the mountains outside of southwestern Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu, tells Sixth Tone that Li’s comments created a wave of panic. “Every day, officials come to supervise and check whether we wear face masks, and how many times we disinfect and clean the place,” she says, adding she’s afraid she’ll be ordered to close any day. She’s taking care of some 35 dogs and has received new orders from people who’ve found it too difficult to keep walking their dogs in the city.

While most Chinese have stayed inside the past few weeks to limit the spread of the virus, Wang Yingchao, founder of WoWoDogWalk, a Shanghai-based dog-walking service, takes over 15,000 steps daily. “Staying indoors for a long time is painful for us, let alone some dog breeds who need more exercise,” says Wang.

With her team, she walks dozens of dogs every day, fewer than usual. But there’s also a silver lining. “It’s actually less hassle to walk the dogs now, as you can hardly see people on the street,” says Wang.

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.