With Sales Slowing, China’s Ecommerce Giants Pivot to Coronavirus Assistance

Ecommerce platforms provide technology, donations, and jobs

a doctor removing supplies from a van
Alibaba and JD are sharing technology and providing various services during the outbreak. JD.com
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

Key insights:

As the Chinese government takes steps to contain the coronavirus outbreak—like extending the Lunar New Year holiday, canceling transportation, keeping schools closed and encouraging companies to allow employees to work from home, China’s two ecommerce giants, Alibaba and JD.com, are responding with efforts of their own.

Daniel Zhang, CEO of Alibaba, has called the coronavirus outbreak a “black swan event” that will significantly impact company revenue. In the quarter ending Dec. 31, 2019, Alibaba’s revenue was $23.19 billion, up 38% year-over-year.

China’s overall economy is already taking a hit. This week’s massive declines across global markets–a loss of $6 trillion over the last six days–were overwhelmingly due to fears over the growing epidemic.

So, as retail sales slow, Alibaba and JD are using their technology, supply chain and economic power to combat the outbreak.

Developing new diagnostic tools

On Feb. 21, Alibaba said it had developed an AI algorithm that can identify coronavirus cases. Based on 5,000 CT scans, the platform said its algorithm can make a diagnosis within 20 seconds, with a 96% accuracy rate.

Alibaba is also working with the Zhejiang Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention on analysis and diagnosis. Its cloud computing arm has offered to work with global research institutions to speed up viral gene sequencing, protein screening and the search for treatments. This, said Dr. Sun Yin, head of the Zhejiang CDC, is narrowing the diagnostic criteria to confirm cases and will hopefully lead to the development of vaccines and other drugs.

In addition, Alibaba Cloud has developed IT management platforms for government departments to help track and share information about the outbreak, including case reporting and chatbots that provide information on infection prevention.

In a similar vein, a smart epidemic assistant from JD was integrated into the WeChat account of the Mayor’s Office in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and epicenter of the epidemic. Services include screening, medical advice and inquiries into whether a plane or train had a coronavirus patient on it.

JD said the assistant can respond to queries, such as what to do if you are experiencing symptoms, and how to properly wear and dispose of face masks. On the first day, it had over 250,000 visits and has since expanded to six provinces.

Ecommerce platform JD Health has also launched free online medical consultation services with doctors and a new online platform to help patients with chronic diseases maintain their drug supply during the outbreak.

Donating items and logistics

Both platforms are also soliciting and transporting donations of medical supplies, including 5 million masks, 500,000 gloves, 40,000 sets of protective clothing, 20,000 goggles, 7,000 cases of disinfectant, 30 tons of intravenous drips and 40 tons of food.

On Feb. 6, Alibaba announced a business-to-business sourcing platform that matches sellers and their products to the needs of hospitals and local authorities. To encourage donations, the online retailer published an open letter, saying, “No matter where your goods are, we will deliver them to frontline medical personnel in the fastest and safest ways.”

Meanwhile, JD’s cloud and AI unit launched an Emergency Resources Information Platform to provide municipal and medical institutions access to online suppliers and emergency logistics services. This also helps match supplies with institutions in need.

On Feb. 14, online supermarket JD Super donated 630,000 adult diapers and 2,000 packages of feminine care products for the over 100,000 workers in Hubei province.

JD quoted a doctor in Wuhan saying, “The protective suits can only be worn once, and we don’t have enough of them. To save resources, we have to try not to use the restroom once we put on the suits. The adult diapers can really help us during this hard time.”

A week later, JD installed 75 massage chairs in hospitals in Hubei and it worked with berry brand Driscoll’s and an apple supplier to donate 1,500 cases of blueberries and raspberries, as well as 1,320 cases of apples to hospital staff in Wuhan.

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@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.