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Combatting pandemics with technology

Hugh Bradlow
25 Mar. 2020

I was recently asked, “what technology do we have now that we did not have during the SARS epidemic in 2002/2003 that could be used to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic”? The answer is an impressive array of new technologies:

  • 84% of Australians have a smartphone – they did not exist in 2003;
  • More than 85% of Australian households have fixed broadband (up from about 55% in 2005);
  • Streaming entertainment services (Netflix, iView, etc) are now widespread;
  • Videoconferencing systems have become commonplace and easy to use with either a computer or mobile device, which was certainly not the case in 2003;
  • We have a wide array of smartphone-enabled food delivery services which did not exist in 2003.

That begs the question “have we used the technology effectively”? The short answer is that we were not ready to take advantage of technology solutions.

On the plus side, today’s technology has enabled many businesses and government departments to have their staff to work from home. Also, for those of us stuck at home, we can access a wide array of entertainment in the forms of TV shows, movies, newspapers and electronic books and we can get food delivered (if we can afford it).

However, other than helping people operate from home, we have not effectively used technology to combat the pandemic. Other countries, notably Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong, have far exceeded Australia in this regard.

That begs the question “have we used the technology effectively”? The short answer is that we were not ready to take advantage of technology solutions. Hugh Bradlow

So what could we/should we have done?

  1. If we had done it early enough, we could have used a mobile phone app to track where people went and who they interacted with.
  2. We could have integrated Government databases such as airport immigration records with the health care records so that it would have been immediately known whether someone entering hospital had travelled outside the country.
  3. We could have used location tracking bracelets to ensure that people did not violate quarantine rules.
  4. We could have used surveillance cameras to ensure that people do not violate social distancing rules (as occurred on Bondi Beach recently).
  5. We could have had mobile phone applications which tracked purchases and implemented rationing where necessary.
  6. Our medical system could have been set up for more routine use of telemedicine instead of being limited to a limited number of types of consultations.
  7. Our education system could have been set up to routinely use distance learning and computer-aided learning (CAL), as opposed to the scramble that is currently occurring to get ready.

No doubt, it will not be lost on anyone that the first 5 interventions on my list are a massive invasion of privacy and civil liberties. However, in times of crisis saving lives transcends civil liberties and the economy. Nevertheless, for the future adoption of such technological solutions, we need to ensure that the protections are built in to prevent this huge potential government power from being abused while it is in place and to ensure it is shut down when the crisis has passed.

The next big opportunity is to use technology to improve diagnostics. The COVID-19 tests have been too few and too slow to be used. We need the equivalent of a temperature scanner for asymptomatic patients. No doubt there will be opportunities created by the Internet of Things.

Finally, we need to reinvigorate local manufacturing using Industry 4.0 technology to circumvent broken global supply chains.

The technology is there – we now need to plan on using it.

Hugh Bradlow is globally recognised as a thought leader in telecommunications and was elected as the joint 2009 Australian Telecommunications Ambassador of the Year, named by Global Telecom Business as one of the most 100 most influential telecommunications executives in the world and Smart Company designated him as one of the 12 most influential people in Australian ICT.

Hugh is also available for virtual programs via webinar & live stream. To engage Hugh for your next event get in touch.

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash.

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