The role of digital infrastructure amidst the coronavirus pandemic has proven to be quite grandeur. With the constant updates and revolutionary measures made to technology, it certainly proves to play a quintessential role in the containment of Covid-19.
Digital infrastructure being a means of communication, a source of information and backend for newer medical innovation, exceptionally demonstrates the rapid evolution of a smart economy.
To add to that, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one such example that has immensely assisted during the global crisis. Dennis Hassabis, the founder of the now Google owned software ‘Deepmind’- was able to utilise functions into identifying the 6 possible proteins linked with the virus. The heightened use of AI especially in ‘corona centric’ nations like China has proven to be extensively successful. Just as ‘Deepmind’, ‘Infervision’ created by a Beijing startup company uses Computer Tomography (CT) scans to detect physical signs with the pneumonia associated with Covid-19. In comparison to PCR tests, CT scanning of the lungs displays a ‘shadow’ that radiologists refer to as ‘ground glass opacity’ (Agarwal, 2020) in infected patients. The use of AI has thereby assisted in the early detection and diagnosis as well as the development of drugs and vaccines by utilising data available from patients.
In order to contain the spread of the virus, contact tracing has been proven quite effective. In China, hightech facial recognition software and drones have been implemented in order to enforce lockdowns. Using phone location data, QR codes depicting each individual’s status as well as messages sent to phones to alert residents/citizens that have been in close proximity to an infected or potentially infected person at a public vicinity are few measures implemented by the Chinese government that other nations such as Singapore, Russia and Taiwan are too following.
Having said that, there is a silver lining to big data being collected. Although its main categorized purpose is to ensure the safety of the general public, there is no telling what external purpose they may use it for. Countries like Israel and Germany, have stricter regulations when it comes to their data protection laws. In Israel, collected data has a period of 30 days after which it gets removed from the system (Economic Times, 2020)
An industry that has constantly been trying to combat the issues that have resulted from the pandemic is the education industry. Here, digital infrastructure plays a great role in creating the new normal for students. According to UNICEF’s article published in the year 2020, with lockdowns in pursuit, the temporary closure of schools has impacted more than 91% of students worldwide. To combat issues as such, UNICEF in partnership with Microsoft and University of Cambridge launched a platform called the ‘Learning Passport’ whereby students can gain access to “online books, videos and additional support for parents of children with learning disabilities” (UNICEF, 2020) .In Rwanda, 3 million students alone have suffered concerns relating to the deprivation of education. To tackle this issue, UNICEF in partnership with the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency aired educational lessons via the radio to provide students access to learning basic literacy and numeracy skills.
Furthermore, cloud computing and remote working have been successfully utilised as a result of digital infrastructure to close the gap resulting from lockdowns and social distancing pursuits. Employees are now able to communicate via the internet and work on single shared documents. Assisting in such endeavours are apps such as Zoom, Google Drive, Google Classroom etc. According to CNBC, Zooms subscriber gain has increased from 10 million at the end of December 2019 to 200 million by the end of March.
With people having more time on their hands working from home and the impacts of the temporary closure of schools for students, the media and entertainment industry has experienced a booming demand in media subscription services such as Netflix and Hulu. According to Forbes, the ‘Netflix Killer’, Hulu is seemingly making its way gaining twice more subscribers in 2019 than Netflix did in their first quarter.
Moreover, the delivery of basic goods and services were one such area given a lot of attention to during the crisis. Amazon CEO Jeff Besos reports that the company plans to spend $4 billion on Covid related expenses like personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits and higher wages for its workers (Economic Times, 2020) Furthermore, marketplaces worldwide are opening doors by launching their companies/platforms online to cater to the extreme demand resulting from panic buying. Whilst adjusting to this new environment, Amazon introduced its new service, Amazon Prime Air, that will deliver goods in 30 minutes or less. In the Middle East, Dubai, for instance, Noon.com has launched a next day grocery delivery service called “Noon Daily” to ensure that residents have other options, to gain access to necessities like sanitizers, masks, fresh grocery items like fruits and vegetables whilst ensuring their safety through the free delivery provided by the company.
To add to that, countless number of food delivery services and restaurants such as Deliveroo, UberEats, Pickme Foods (Sri Lanka), Dominos and various others all adjusted to precautionary measures by enabling a ‘contactless delivery’ option to maintain appropriate safety regulations. Alongside that, Postmates introduced its new autonomous robot (monitored by human pilots at the comfort of their home) that delivers food to customers whilst complying by social distancing rules (Forbes,2020) Although this transition seems highly innovative, and intriguing, there are drawbacks that arise from being highly technologically dependant. Employees are found complaining of slow internet whilst working behind the scenes to ensure deliveries get sent out. This in turn may lead to customers complaining of slow deliveries as the robot functions based on the command given to it by its corresponding human pilot.
With that being said, though technology presents certain drawbacks it is next to impossible to ignore the versatility in its functions. For instance, the Radio Frequency Identification Chip (RFID) invented for the sole purpose of tracking/identifying the approach of a friend or foe during World War II is now being used for countless reasons especially during the pandemic such as card payments, medical inventory tracking, authenticating the sterilisation of surgical tools, logging patient details and countless others. In the case of patients, RFID wristbands are utilised to ensure that each individual gets delivered the right medication and in cases of emergencies important details/information pertaining to each individual patient are mentioned for the medical attendant to beware of. (Smiley, 2017)
Alongside that, the Internet of Things equally demonstrated a fundamental role amidst the containment of the spread of the coronavirus. Heart-rate monitoring, blood pressure/glucometers, are all utilised by and interlinked within technological products such as wearable heart monitors, bluetooth-enabled scales and fitbits for the purpose of remote patient monitoring (RPM). RPM is utilised in this scenario to monitor patients’ health at the comfort of their home or other remote areas instead of a conventional clinical area. In China and Italy, medical robots have been introduced to check temperatures and deliver food and medication to patients (Romero, 2020)
Amidst all these uses, one of the prime examples of the utilisation of digital technology and the ease it prompts driving globalisation especially during the crisis, is the construction of the hospital in Wuhan, China, that took just about 10 days to build. The tireless work done by labourers proved effective with the equally immense support mended by infrastructure technology such as bulldozers, crains, trucks, 3D printing, artificial intelligence and drones.
To conclude, the rapid expansion and evolution of digital infrastructure has certainly aided with the containment of the disease. Data extracted by governments, then that being utilised in the development of apps such as Health Map which is a real time map used to provide up to date estimates of the geographic spread of the novel coronavirus (Washington Post, 2020) all demonstrate the heightened use of digital infrastructure in being a source of information extending knowledge to people globally. With countries and industries becoming more ‘tech-savvy’ and constant updates and revolutionary methods implemented to improve existing technology the question that constantly lingers is, ‘’If digitalization is the solution, then what really is the problem?’’
Ms. Melisa Nethmi Mahatelge Dias – BSc Management and Digital Innovation