By Devanand Ramiah
Deputy Resident Representative, UNDP China
The coronavirus is testing China’s disaster preparedness and response, from public health systems to information sharing. Yet China has a key advantage in this fight; its technology infrastructure. Not only is technology making life in quarantine more livable for millions of people, but it is also helping to fight the virus.
China had sequenced the virus’s genome. By posting that sequencing online, it trigged a ripple effect in research labs across the world, with a surge in orders for synthetic samples to build copies from. This allowed new treatments to be trialed, and even experiments that failed have offered vital clues in guiding researchers to where they should focus.
Drones are being dispatched to respond to the outbreak, across the country. From patrolling walkways with loudspeakers warning residents to wear masks, to hovering over streets with QR code placards that drivers can scan with their phones to register health information. The drones allow authorities to get information out faster while also keeping a safe distance. Agricultural drones are spraying disinfectants in remote areas, while others have been used to deliver crucial medical supplies.
Food to go
Smartphones are playing a critical role in reducing exposure. Delivery apps offer contactless delivery, where drivers drop food off at a specific point. With the food comes a card noting the temperature of everyone involved in the cooking and delivery. Another offers users maps marking residential communities with confirmed cases and their proximity to them. Meanwhile, mobile payment apps are reducing transmission from paper money, which can carry viruses for up to 17 days.
As the virus began making headlines globally, false information also spread, it was labeled an ‘infodemic’ by the World Health Organization. Yet while technology has facilitated misinformation, it is also helping to curb it. In China, a massive online mobilization of experts, universities, organizations (including UNDP), celebrities and even A.I. news anchors are battling the infodemic, urging everyone to “spread the word, not the virus". For instance, sharing how to wear masks, and encouraging young people to share facts with the elderly and to promote social distancing.
A major challenge is being able to work. Several tech companies are offering free online collaborative tools. Other businesses have quickly adopted work-from-home policies, using online meeting software, collaboration platforms and LBS technology to clock in and ensure employees stay home. At UNDP Zoom teleconferencing and Enterprise Resource Planning platforms have allowed us to keep working.
After weeks of schools being closed, possibly the biggest challenge for parents is keeping children occupied and continuing their schoolwork. To enable this, many Chinese schools have rolled out online learning platforms, where students take courses and teachers livestream lectures from home. From hypertension to arthritis, people still have many other medical needs. Online doctors and express deliveries of medicine are on the rise, as people avoid hospitals. Many institutions also offer online psychological counseling services--often for free--to counter the stress of social distancing.
Robots are also used in many hospitals to deliver food, medicine and other supplies; to disinfect hospitals and other public areas to check patients’ temperatures and to answer common questions. Coronavirus is being diagnosed using AI, which can read thousands of CT scans in 20 seconds with an accuracy rate of 96 percent.
Compulsory quarantine has disrupted daily life and curtailed social interaction for nearly one fifth of the global population. This is leading millions to meet online instead. Families dine together with relatives in distant cities, raising a glass to each other on camera. Even weddings have been held in virtual reality.
Transparent and accessible public data has helped build dashboards to track the spread of virus. These dashboards are not only made by UN bodies such as WHO, but also smaller organizations. Users can get real time updates easily.
While the use of technology can at times present its own challenges, and fuel debates about privacy and public good; in the fight against the coronavirus, it is playing a critical role in offering treatment, information, support, food, schooling and greater safety for many.