By Munmun Majumdar
The similarities in facts and fiction aren’t generally as obvious as in the case of 2011 Hollywood film Contagion —almost like a chronicle of a pandemic foretold.What is different, though, is the availability and use of sophisticated technologies that in many ways are proving to be critical in combating the Novel Coronavirus. The COVID-19 has led to reliance on communication technology promoting an exponential rise in pervasive computing like never before. At the same time the pandemic is a grim reminder that the world continues to face existential threats that knows no borders causing loss of lives, social disruptions, economy and exposed the vulnerability of countries’ healthcare systems and social infrastructure.
When the WHO declared COVID -19 a global pandemic, the response of the governments all over the world was to prevent the spread of the disease by imposing restrictions on travel and movement of people. Most countries went into lock down. Governments and societies all over the world became desperate in seeking ways to work on strengthening their health infrastructure, business continuity plans etc.The nature of COVID-19 reinforced the need to rely on new technologies to build flexible and dynamic models to respond. This is the first pandemic in human history where technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, productive and connected while being physically apart. This paradigm shift will affect not simply the way business, production, distribution or consumption are conducted but every aspect of life.
The onset of the Fourth industrial revolution had already heralded drastic technological changes profoundly transforming economics, societies, national security and other areas. According to the frequently quoted Davos report, 65% of primary school children entering school today will end up working in entirely new jobs which do not exist now. It also foresaw that most of these jobs will be highly complex and interrelated. Hence, the implications extended much beyond better computers linked to expansive networks to encompass genetic engineering, 3D printing, renewable energy, and other path breaking technologies. The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a catalyst, and speeded up this all-encompassing revolution that was already moving at an exponential speed.
The accelerated digitalization of many business and service, including teleworking and video conferencing systems in and out of workplace, access to health care, education, access to essential goods and services etc. are pointers to this new development.
Communication technology has facilitated the ability to work from home, have homebased learning, maintain social bonds and even hold a virtual Royal Hospital Chelsea flower show etc. At a time of severe crunch of healthcare professionals and the risk of people-to-people contact, autonomous vehicles are proving to be of great utility in delivering essential goods like medicines and food items. Robots are being deployed as vending machines, dispensing hand sanitizers, performing thermal imaging and so on. In some of the severely affected areas, where humans were at a risk of catching the virus, drones came to the rescuetransporting both medical equipment and patient samples, saving time and enhancing the speed of deliveries. Similarly, tools that use Artificial Intelligence are being employed to detect traces of the virus. And the Mobile epidemic map enables more people to view epidemic information conveniently and in real-time on portable devices.A good instance of leveraging technology is the AarogyaSetu_ a mobile app which uses GPS and Blue Tooth to help citizens identify their risk of contracting the novel coronavirus and provides information to effectively track patients and those they come in contact with.
Similarly, educational institutions opted for online teaching and learning as a mode of pedagogy. Conducting Conferences, Webinar workshops, seminars were made possible from the safety of one’s own home. Flexible arrangements and teleworking are already mandated by the ongoing pandemic and global access to online learning as a medium made it possible to keep learning as an emergency measure.
Online learning, which is a version of distance education, is based on the premise that education should be all-inclusive and lifelong. It believes in the values of equity, access and quality. However, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) 53.6% of world population have access to the Internet. This implies that many are being left behind from the virtual lectures, sharing of research and study material over virtual conferencing tools. As a matter of fact, these technology tools whether used for commerce, education or to make digital payments etc., relies on internet availability and access to these tools will depend on whether the people have the required facilities to do so.
The outbreak has also hastened the transition to e-commerce and accelerated the use of artificial intelligence and robotics and people are showing more interest in food safety and health. Similarly, social media and messaging platforms has helped societies stay resilient. Simultaneously, the dissemination of hate speech, conspiracies, and dangerous medical misinformation that undermine societies from within is on the rise.There has been a huge spike in phishing worldwideand Governments are having to face various challenges in communicating public health guidelines to citizens, including information dissemination and combatting the COVID-19 infodemic.
Certainly, the use of technology whether it be the use of Trace Together for contact tracing, technology for home-based learning, video calls for work from home, using e-commerce apps to keep their businesses alive,in creating new ways to connect citizens to healthcare, has been positive as we see it happening already.Even though the COVID-19 has exposed human fragility, along with the downside of an interconnected world, being equipped with technological advancements has enabled mankind to respond to the crisis better than any past pandemic. However, what cannot be undermined is that the measures to curb the spread of the virus based on technology often infringe upon personal choice and privacy. For example, to mitigate the epidemic and accurately scan people diagnosed with the virus, countries across the globe are tracking smartphone data and technology such as the rings and bracelets that are connected to the Cloud Minds AI platform can monitor all changes in the body. Utilizing sophisticated technologies and expansive surveillance network such as the use of facial and iris recognition solutions integrated with infra-red thermometers for screening for public good marks a big leap in the technology sector at the same time it is essential to recognize that these measures also pervade the private domain.What is of utmost concern is that once the States establish complete control of the user data, will it use it for intrusive surveillance or Bio-surveillance? Much will depend on how government policies are shaped, as well as, on how people respond.While there are a couple of promising trials going on which the world hopes for the recovery, an added challenge is to address how technology will be deployed in future that will define a new tomorrow.
The writer is Professor, Dept of Political Science, North-Eastern Hill University