From Surviving to Thriving During a Modern Pandemic
The 1918 flu pandemic, or “Spanish flu,” was one of the deadliest pandemics in history. It infected about a third of the world’s population and resulted in an estimated 17 million to 50 million deaths. Although there have been many flu pandemics since 1918, none have been as deadly as the Spanish Flu.
The true geographic origin of the “Spanish flu” is unknown, but the name stuck due to the uncensored reporting in Spain — everyone just assumed that the virus originated in Spain because it was the only region that reported on it. The pandemic occurred during World War I when wartime censorship was occurring, so reporting was suppressed in many countries.
Fast forward to 2020, and we find ourselves living in yet another flu pandemic. The censored media during the times of the Spanish flu caused a downplaying of the infectiousness of the disease, leading to a faster spread. However, unlike a century ago, today’s media allows for a quick spread of information. We also use modern technology to track information about COVID-19, allowing us to take proper precautions much more quickly.
Although the Spanish Flu and modern COVID-19 are different, we have still learned and borrowed many lessons from the 1918 pandemic, including wearing masks, social distancing, and quarantining. With those practices come unique challenges, but modern technology can help us overcome those challenges and make society more adaptable and resilient, and even help us to evolve and excel.
Challenge #1: Education
COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented amount of closures of schools, colleges, and universities. Students who experienced school closures in the past did not have the advantages of technology (including education software, email, websites, and more) that students have today. Although not every student has access to technology, many schools and companies have come up with creative ways to solve the lack of access. Many districts have distributed laptops. Some cities have outfitted school buses with Wi-Fi and placed them in strategic locations to provide services to those without.
Although the transition to online learning environments is a big adjustment for students, teachers, and parents alike, developing a consistent routine can help ease anxieties and help make the unfamiliar more familiar. Many states are developing continuous virtual learning plans. Video conferencing apps such as Zoom are helping to mimick “in-person” interactions with teachers and fellow students during weekly meetings.
Education is essential for teaching vital skills to students who are the future of the workforce. Questions still remain as to how well students and parents alike have adapted — and will continue to adapt — to the switch to a virtual learning environment. Although it is difficult to estimate the impact of this shutdown on education, technology has allowed many students to make the move from learning in a traditional classroom setting to learning in the safety of their homes.
Challenge #2: Health and Medicine
Two kinds of tests for COVID-19 are currently available: antibody tests (which tell you if you have had the infection in the past) and viral tests (which tell you whether you currently have the virus). Many countries have widespread testing in place, leading to quicker detection and isolation of those infected, resulting in a reduction of the spread of the virus. Although the first COVID-19 tests were developed rather quickly, tests are rapidly improving, and there are even tests underway that can detect the virus in as little as 20 minutes.
Vaccines have typically taken 12–15 years to develop, but with the help of technology, researchers are hoping to have one for COVID-19 within as little as 12–18 months. In order to meet this deadline, vaccine development efforts are in the works worldwide involving various technologies. Researchers are building on existing technologies, increasing clinical trials, and even trying new vaccine technologies that have never been used on people. Although developing a safe and effective vaccine in such a short span of time is no easy feat, today’s technology could make it possible.
The Internet of Things, or IoT, which is a giant network of devices (often referred to as “smart” devices) that connect to the Internet and exchange data, has made its way into the healthcare market. Telehealth, or remote care, is an IoT application that allows for remote patient monitoring. It has been mostly underutilized but has seen a surge in recent months. Artificial intelligence, or AI, has also been around for a while, but it has recently evolved. For example, data analytics companies have recently been using AI to cross-reference posts from social media sites with disease descriptions taken from scientific sources.
Challenge #3: Employment / The Workforce
Despite living in a pandemic, people have to continue to make money to survive and pay the bills. Many jobs involve lots of human contact, with many people working in close proximity to others in an office environment or service settings such as stores and restaurants. COVID-19 has caused modern businesses to re-think their day-to-day operations in order to lower risks for employees and customers. Many companies and employees have had to switch operations from office buildings to remote work in short periods of time. Luckily, with access to proper equipment and remote access software, the workforce has been able to adapt rather quickly.
Many formerly closed businesses have recently opened their doors to customers again, and are taking precautions such as requiring masks and social distancing. Phone apps make it easy for customers to place delivery orders or mobile orders for curbside pickup, allowing for minimal contact. Many companies have moved exclusively to digital payments. All of these practices help businesses remain open and employees to continue to make an income while reducing the spread of COVID-19.
Traditional technology such as computers and phones allow businesses, as usual, to go on in the safety and comfort of people’s homes. Online conferencing services such as Zoom allow companies to conduct meetings online. Remote-based monitoring has led to an increased demand for IoT, as it allows companies to monitor employees remotely. One example of an IoT product is The Fever Kit, developed by Aridea, which is a non-contact temperature screener that could help with the reopening of businesses.
Challenge #4: Business / The Global Supply Chain
Online shopping is booming, and international supply chains are strained. Many factories have had to shut down due to social distancing and quarantines. Coronavirus-related transportation restrictions have led to supply-chain and global shipping disruptions. We all learned the hard way that supply chains are not 100% resilient during the great toilet paper shortage of 2020. Panic-buying and hoarding have caused an increased demand for many consumer goods.
The healthcare supply chain has been particularly hit hard by the pandemic. The heroic efforts of our healthcare providers and other essential workers have been complicated by the shortage of medical supplies, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), medication, testing equipment, and ventilators. There is no centralized logistics and manufacturing system in place in the U.S., so many companies have had to come together to identify and expand sources.
The demand for medical supplies has been alleviated by both government-led and private sector-led collaborations. Manufacturers have ramped up production. Some companies in different industries have even begun producing and/or distributing medical supplies, such as Amazon and Ford. 3D printing has also been utilized to help increase production, and drones have been used to help transport materials. Preservation measures such as reusing supplies (after decontamination and sterilization), adapting and re-purposing existing machines (such as using sleep apnea machines when ventilators are scarce), and placing export restrictions on critical medical supplies all help to alleviate demand.
Blockchain technology (digital pieces of information (“blocks” that are stored in a secure shared database) is helping to provide the connectivity that is so desperately needed in supply chain management. Blockchain allows all parties in a supply chain to track the movement of medical products in real-time, effectively streamlining processes. It also benefits communication between clinicians, governments, health organizations, researchers, and more by serving as a trusted decentralized platform.
Technology provides many benefits to businesses, communities, and consumers, but it can also be a controversial political, social, and/or cultural issue. For example, digital surveillance is widely practiced in countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore to help track the spread of the virus. Some countries use techniques such as facial recognition and GPS to track the spread. Life has almost returned to normal in areas where individuals are digitally monitored. These monitoring technologies, however, face privacy concerns and therefore are not used as widely in Europe and the United States. Regardless, many countries are now rethinking concerns about privacy rules and principles in an attempt to eliminate contagion risks and develop efficient vaccines and treatments.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact are ever-evolving, leading to lots of uncertainty. It is tough to tell what the future holds, and we may have to continue to work and socialize virtually for an unknown amount of time, but thanks to technology, society has already begun to adapt quickly to the new normal and may soon return to many of its pre-COVID ways.