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2021-01-14 09:51:08

Surveillance systems in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin have been updated to detect bus, taxi, and ride-hailing drivers who are not wearing face masks, a response to concerns that they could become superspreaders amid the current spike in COVID-19 cases in the region.

To allow for cameras in Tianjin to detect such drivers, the city’s traffic management department set up a database of drivers’ “relevant information,” local media reported Tuesday. Once maskless drivers are detected, their companies will be prosecuted if they fail to rectify the situation. The new policy also noted that maskless passengers should be refused.

Though China has been successful in keeping COVID-19 cases low since the initial outbreak a year ago, there has been a spike in infections over the last month in several northern and northeastern provinces, leading to the government again ramping up containment measures.

For now, combating the virus comes first. But the policy should be canceled after the pandemic.

Tianjin borders Hebei, a hard-hit province with 463 cases as of Wednesday evening. Three cities in Hebei are currently under lockdown. On Wednesday, the province reported China’s first death due to COVID-19 since May.

China’s successful track record in limiting COVID-19 cases and the gradual relaxation of mask-wearing mandates have led to such rules being flaunted in situations where they still apply.

Last week, domestic media reported that there had been 108 instances of drivers for China’s dominant ride-hailing platform, Didi Chuxing, and an affiliated company failing to comply with epidemic prevention and control measures such as mask-wearing. The two companies were fined a combined 1.41 million yuan ($218,000).

Bus, taxi, and ride-hailing drivers are potentially potent infection vectors because they occupy enclosed spaces with many different people. After a Beijing-based ride-hailing driver tested positive for the coronavirus on Saturday, Didi Chuxing responded to public concerns by announcing that all of its drivers in the capital would be vaccinated within one week.

Mask-wearing has been widely shown to reduce infection risks. A previous Tianjin outbreak in November was traced to a man with COVID-19 who had coughed and sneezed while not wearing a mask in two different elevators, potentially causing a local cluster of eight cases.

China has one of the world’s most sophisticated public surveillance systems, with an estimated 560 million cameras. Many of the country’s surveillance systems use artificial intelligence to recognize people’s faces, or to spot litter or even unleashed dogs. The widespread use of AI technologies like facial recognition in China has also sparked privacy concerns.

Experts say Tianjin’s use of surveillance cameras to spot unmasked drivers is a reasonable outbreak control measure. “Because we’re in a critical period of controlling the epidemic, there isn’t much to dispute about this issue,” Gao Fuping, director of the data law research center at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone.“As long as the policy was ordered with proper notice to the public, there is solid legal ground to execute its rules.”

Shanghai-based lawyer Ding Jinkun told Sixth Tone that, although stopping the virus from spreading is what should be prioritized at the moment, drivers’ privacy shouldn’t be completely overlooked.

“There is certainly a serious knock-on effect to all of Tianjin’s public transit drivers’ behavior and activities being monitored,” Ding said. “Of course, for now, combating the virus comes first. But the policy should be canceled after the pandemic.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A bus driver wears a mask during his shift in Kunming, Yunnan province, Feb. 22, 2020. Liu Ranyan/CNS/People Visual)