COVID-19 is a highly contagious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus “SARS-COV-2”. This novel coronavirus was initially discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. Exponential spread of the disease has resulted in thousands of deaths around the world. The most nerve-racking effect of this virus remains the difficulty in early detection as well as high transmissibility during the incubation period lasting from five to fourteen days. Asymptomatic trait of this virus keeps the infected individual oblivious to contamination which still remains a source of its unnoticed spread over to others. The world’s biologists are busy in discovering a successful vaccine against this disease but the discovery and its implementation is appearing to be a tedious process. Consequently, controlling the disease gyrates around the adherence to its already well established postulates encompassing social distancing, wearing of masks and gloves, observing personal and environmental hygiene, avoiding large assemblies, constraining movement and early detection of infected individuals for quarantining or self-isolation. Swift adoption of these measures coupled with usage of technology will undeniably ensure synergy in effective control of this pandemic. COVID-19 has brought the entire world to a state of stalemate, resulting in compulsory lockdowns and ceasing of all political, social, religious and commercial activities around the globe. The entire hysterical world is frantically struggling to make use of all plausible resources to combat the disease. Associates like scientists and researchers still seem ineffective in discovery of a potent vaccine or medicine to combat this novel Coronavirus. The absence of any effective drug dictates the use of technology as a vanguard for fight in the contemporary arena of this disease. Glancing upon the canvas of the world, so far China and South Korea have surfaced as successful in harnessing the disease. Dilating upon the approaches of these countries, though ostensibly variant in their natures, it is realised that the leading commonality among them was the use of technology in a strategy against COVID-19. The presence of technology in the entire world was thus brought to fore by these countries by its instrumentation in novel ways. The salient point of their strategy was the early and swift use of technology through its integration for accruing a more organised, coordinated and unified response.
Surveillance cameras, cell phones and credit card transactions were used to map the social connections of confirmed cases and track the chains for transmission of probable disease amongst the people. Mobile phone apps were used to monitor people in quarantine. Thermal image cameras were also used to detect people with fever. This extensive testing and contact tracing have proved to be the most effective strategies in contemporary times of this deadly pandemic, thus avoiding massive lockdowns or quarantining complete cities. These measures enabled normal life with undertaking of regular activities at work places, factories, shopping malls and restaurants.
South Korea, contrary to the rest of the world, did not follow very stringent and substantial shutdowns but was still effectively able to contain the exponential spread-over effects of the virus. The main efforts were directed towards massive screening, early detection, testing and isolation of the suspected and confirmed cases in quarantine centres. The undertaking of tests at a mass scale was only possible with the availability of sufficient testing kits. The South Korean government made it possible to develop the requisite number of kits. This was done through close coordination between health authorities and research institutions. The research outcomes were shared with the manufacturers (pharmaceutical companies), who developed the kits including the apparatus along with the desired reagent or chemical through dedicated efforts. This large scale manufacturing of kits made it possible to carry out the tests on a broad scale by application of tests to patients including the asymptomatic, mild, and symptomatic cases. Results of the tests were analysed and immediate actions were taken to quarantine, treat and hospitalise the patients. Surveillance cameras, cell phones and credit card transactions were used to map the social connections of confirmed cases and track the chains for transmission of probable disease amongst the people. Mobile phone apps were used to monitor people in quarantine. Thermal image cameras were also used to detect people with fever. This extensive testing and contact tracing have proved to be the most effective strategies in contemporary times of this deadly pandemic, thus avoiding massive lockdowns or quarantining complete cities. These measures enabled normal life with undertaking of regular activities at work places, factories, shopping malls and restaurants. The World Health Organization (WHO) has remained cognizant of these successful strategies and has praised the efforts of South Korea and has asked other countries to learn from the experienced practices of South Korea.
China being the first victim of the disease with its main industrial city of Wuhan as the initial midpoint of its lethality had no reaction time like the rest of the world. The extensive usage of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) and other technologies coupled with already existing authoritarian policies of Chinese government made it further possible to set an efficient response in a quick time frame. The pronounced disposition of Chinese people for extensive use of mobile applications for assorted tasks was already common due to the availability of high-speed mobile internet access. The voids of technology were swiftly removed by further placing of effective measures. ICT was effectively used to make the life of people in quarantine more liveable. Connectivity of all people in quarantine was made possible through the availability of different online services. Contaminated areas with positive cases in the affected cities were marked on digital maps and made readily available to the public through mobile dashboards to avoid contact. In addition to location-based mobile apps, BeiDou Navigation Satellite System was also used to track patients. Government efforts were initially rebuked, however, the availability of such data for public convenience assisted people in recognition of government’s efforts and brought realisation amongst the masses to adhere to necessary protective measures. This also improved the transparency of actions adopted by the government, thus enhancing the trust of common people in government efforts. China already possessed the world's highest entrance of e-wallets in its businesses, nevertheless, there has been further emphasis on the use of e-banking in the wake of the currency notes becoming another well-founded source of spread of the Coronavirus. Activities like placing online orders through mobile apps were used for food and grocery items by people in quarantine in a simple and efficient manner. Work from home was made possible through different online applications. Students continued their academic pursuits through online classes using live streaming learning platforms. Medics, consultant doctors and psychologists got engaged in the provision of online consultancy services for routine health and particularly the psychological issues arising from isolation due to quarantine. Online fill-in forms were designed and used for people suspected of being infected from the Coronavirus instead of visiting the clinics, thus impeding the spread of the virus. The authorities by availing these consultations between medical staff and suspected patients facilitated them to dedicated hospitals through specially designated ambulances. Usage of mobile applications by people assisted in the compilation of location data for deciphering the probable contact tracing against the speculated spread-over of the virus and undertaking of other correlated actions like quarantining of people. Violators were also monitored and identified through mobile phone applications. Owing to reduced strength vis-a-vis absence of consultants on duty due to social distancing factor, the on duty medical staff used video conferencing platforms for guidance from consultants swiftly without making any physical contact.
Up-to-date information, well-guarded against disinformation, was made available on social media platforms more efficiently for apprising the masses about the disease and postulates emanating from first-hand experiences. Since an overabundance of information – some accurate but some may not – labelled as ‘infodemic’ by the WHO makes it difficult for people to find the truth. Fake news that could lead to discontent, anxiety and trauma, were taken off immediately from social media platforms. China already had an added advantage of allowing only its domestic social media platforms by restricting the universally used western social media platforms since long.
Work from home was made possible through different online applications. Students continued their academic pursuits through online classes using live streaming learning platforms. Medics, consultant doctors and psychologists got engaged in the provision of online consultancy services for routine health and particularly the psychological issues arising from isolation due to quarantine. Online fill-in forms were designed and used for people suspected of being infected from the Coronavirus instead of visiting the clinics, thus impeding the spread of the virus.
China already had well established sophisticated mass surveillance modules in place with face recognition cameras and intelligent algorithms running in the background, collecting the data for personal profiling and performing other tasks. Infrared based thermal imaging cameras were used for temperature scanning, detection of people with high grade fever. Face recognition even with masks on the faces were used, thus prompting and enabling the authorities sitting in driving seats for undertaking requisite actions like testing, quarantine and required treatments. This also enabled the authorities in identifying the violators of quarantine protocol and their immediate positioning back to quarantine and recognition of hideout seekers while travelling. Every infected person in China was also incessantly observed and hunted down. Cameras could perform the task of temperature scanning or facial recognition without impeding or disturbing the stream of people. Large scale data for composing and assigning the individuals with red, yellow or green colour was maintained. The colour coding through a QR code depending on their potential threat of spreading the virus was also achieved to combat the disease. Health insurance and immigration databases were integrated to find people with high risks and travel history. Artificial Intelligence (AI) apparatus were integrated with these databases for screening of people to automatically find out potential cases with high risks. The use of modern communication means by concerned health officials also assisted in acquisition of rapid information for further investigation of such potential cases of COVID-19.
Extensive use of robotics technology was used in Chinese hospitals for delivery of medicines, meals and other goods to patients, thus minimising personal contact. These robots were disinfected after each delivery thus attaining the principle of social distancing to maximum levels. Robots were also used to deliver medical samples at the laboratories and perform essential nursing tasks like checking temperature and answering patients’ common questions. They were also employed to disinfect the areas in hospitals and outdoor streets using ultraviolet lights and disinfectants to the enhanced capacity of carrying a load of 145 litres of disinfectant with ten hours stamina of working on a single charge. Cautions, warnings and admonishments to people were served through camera detections for major violations like not wearing masks and making an assembly even at a small scale. Robots with thermal imaging infrared cameras were used to detect people with temperature. In Wuhan city robots were even used to deliver medicines, food and other goods to residents in self quarantine. Driverless delivery vehicles were used to deliver food, medicines and other supplies to hospitals. Drones were used for spraying disinfectants, delivering medical supplies and temperature scanning. AI was used to diagnose patients suffering from COVID-19 within twenty seconds by reading their CT scans. 3D printing was used to quickly fabricate and replace the damaged parts of medical equipment at far-off locations. Chinese authorities are still very careful and gradually easing the restrictions because there are fears that as soon as the bans are lifted and people start interacting there could be a second wave of Coronavirus disease.
Fake news that could lead to discontent, anxiety and trauma, were taken off immediately from social media platforms. China already had an added advantage of allowing only its domestic social media platforms by restricting the universally used western social media platforms since long.
Pakistan falls in the category of underdeveloped countries with limited health facilities, fragile economy, deficient technological paradigm and poor awareness of the masses about health and hygiene. While contemplating the strategy adopted by Pakistan in its fight against the Coronavirus, it reflects that the available technology has been used very effectively. The scale of its technology base is not large as compared to China due to its limited infrastructure. Yet it is not only technology alone that plays its role but amalgamation of technology with government policies, regulations and ensuring discipline, which leads to the desired results. These phenomena can be ascertained from the failure of the western countries, which are already amongst the leading countries in acquisition/possession of modern technology. This dismisses the analogy of reliance on technology alone instead of its integration with effective control measures being adopted for accruing the desired outcomes.
Extensive use of robotics technology was used in Chinese hospitals for delivery of medicines, meals and other goods to patients, thus minimising personal contact. These robots were disinfected after each delivery thus attaining the principle of social distancing to maximum levels. Robots were also used to deliver medical samples at the laboratories and perform essential nursing tasks like checking temperature and answering patients’ common questions.
Mobile phone penetration in our country is more than 78%; out of which 36% are 3G/4G subscribers and 37% broadband customers. A large number of people have access to mobile phones, internet and social media. The government has effectively used these technological platforms for the awareness of general masses against Coronavirus through instant alerts. Coronavirus awareness messages have been replaced with regular caller tunes. The Government of Pakistan has established a “1166 health helpline” and launched a very comprehensive web portal “http://covid.gov.pk/”. This user-friendly web portal provides authentic information and statistics about Coronavirus in real-time to control the spread of any fake news or misinformation which could lead to panic and fear. Details of available medical facilities, preventive measures to be taken to avoid the spread of virus, public service messages and videos, WHO advisories, chatbot service, information about air travel operations, statistics and a lot more is also available on the web portal. Mobile applications backed by strong IT infrastructure are being used to recruit/register volunteers, obtaining feedback and coordinating relief efforts. Technology has been incorporated for bringing maximum transparency in the distribution of relief goods and distribution of ration and cash to the needy in quarantine. This is important in a country where 24% citizens are already living under the poverty line and the government is economically hard-pressed. Under these circumstances, transparency of relief operations where the deserving individuals are getting the goods and cash in aid without pilferage or leakage is the key to overall success which can only be ensured by utilising ICT. Fortunately we have a much enriched national database maintained by the NADRA which is being utilised for distribution of aid by the government. Technology has provided an opportunity to fairly distribute critical medical supplies like N95 masks, ventilators, sanitizers, protection gears and testing kits. The government is using IT to manage the data of infected individuals, hospitalisation and recoveries. The same data is shared through real-time accurate information on the website, TV channels and print media. During lockdown, educational institutions and offices are mostly managed from homes by letting the workers and students use web based platforms for their daily routine affairs online like meetings, seminars, training and complete classroom activities including assessments. Most software applications used for online working and learning are foreign thus there are serious concerns about privacy of our citizens’ data and cybersecurity vulnerabilities. This issue can be addressed by developing our own indigenous software applications which may not be difficult with our current human potential. Recently the government has launched a new mobile application “Covid-19 Gov Pk" that provides updated information about the current status of COVID-19 and awareness about preventive actions to be taken to avoid the spread of Coronavirus. The main feature of this application “Radius Alert” has been launched recently, which allows users to identify COVID-19 patients around them in a certain radius to maintain social distancing. However, areas that still require improvement are effective checks to control the spread of rumours and misinformation at government level. This may be difficult with the current foreign social media platforms, thus there is a need to develop our own indigenous platforms like China. Existing surveillance networks in Pakistan may be integrated with thermal imaging cameras to detect people with fever. The National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) has already developed the prototypes of Coronavirus testing kits, drone spray and ventilators. The same needs to be certified by the concerned regulatory bodies and then there is a need for industries to produce these in bulk on a war footing. Some students have proposed AI tools to predict Coronavirus from CT scan images. Our higher education institutions and R&D organisations need to focus and find novel ways to fight the disease. Unfortunately due to lockdown, higher education institutions are not contributing to their real potential. We need to focus on Chinese and Korean models for use of technology by integrating it with policies, regulations, compliance and discipline to control the disease and contain the damage to the optimum. So far the statistics indicate that the country is performing really well but we need to remain disciplined and strictly adhere to the policies and instructions issued by the government.
Driverless delivery vehicles were used to deliver food, medicines and other supplies to hospitals. Drones were used for spraying disinfectants, delivering medical supplies and temperature scanning. AI was used to diagnose patients suffering from COVID-19 within twenty seconds by reading their CT scans. 3D printing was used to quickly fabricate and replace the damaged parts of medical equipment at far-off locations.
In retrospect, the techniques of social distancing, early detection and isolation are orthodox for controlling any epidemics/pandemics in the past but are still apt in the contemporary environment. Nevertheless the amalgamation effect of both technology as well as past practices has largely helped in implementing the curtailment of the disease in an innovative way and in a more effective fashion. Humans can’t compete with the speed and scale of modern technology. Technology can help to control any pandemic due to the presence of a very high computational power of computers, image processing algorithms in detecting and tracking individuals, infrared thermal imaging to detect potential cases with fever, mobile apps for telemedicine, AI algorithms to detect cases from the given data and supercomputing to advance medical research.
The National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) has already developed the prototypes of Coronavirus testing kits, drone spray and ventilators. The same needs to be certified by the concerned regulatory bodies and then there is a need for industries to produce these in bulk on a war footing.
Employment of these technologies in this way is efficient, quite useful and essential but raises serious concerns over privacy and protection of personal data which need to be addressed in an appropriate way. Humans can learn from the present experience about the efficacy of these technologies for future use. AI, big data, surveillance, facial recognition, mobile technologies, robotics, autonomous vehicles, cloud computing and Internet of Things are expected to play a much powerful role in the coming days as scientists and technologists learning from this pandemic are trying to improve these technologies to work in a better, efficient and effective way in times to come. AI has the potential to predict the next pandemic and structure of a new virus from the data of present Coronavirus pandemic to develop effective drugs in advance. The real test of these futuristic technologies would be to prevent any future pandemic.
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