Robots can’t catch the coronavirus. Nor can drones and self-driving cars. As COVID-19 spreads through our communities and economies, we’re marshalling all our resources to fight it. As a result, many emerging technologies are being pushed into the mainstream to help hospitals, businesses and governments find new continuity solutions and reduce mortality rates.
Doing What We’ve Always Done
There’s nothing novel about using technology to fight disease. Some of history’s biggest medical breakthroughs were in response to a threat to our survival. Microscopes revealed the invisible world of pathogens. Stethoscopes allowed us to hear inside the body. X-rays, anaesthesia, the development of antibiotics – these are all technological innovations that prolonged threats to life. In this time of COVID-19, we’re once again using technology to prevent, contain, and vaccinate against, disease.
Medical Innovations: China Is Leading The Way
In China, medical facilities are rolling-out robotic healthcare workers equipped with machine learning and AI that can work faster than any doctor. These robots perform diagnostic triage –measuring heart rate and body temperature, and analysing CT scans and travel history to give doctor’s a reliable infection estimate on a 10-point scale. Oh, and they can do this in 10 seconds.
To confirm an infection, doctors are using new test kits measuring only a few centimetres long that deliver definitive blood-test results in under two hours. Once testing is completed, robot “janitors” arrive to sanitise the space with UV-C light in time for the next patient.
China is also using drones to help enhance compliance. After curfew hours, drones mounted with loudspeakers scatter public gatherings and caution those not wearing masks. The drones also carry thermal cameras to monitor body temperatures at scale, helping to predict and pre-empt spread before an outbreak.
Applying This Thinking To South Africa
Using Drones To Deliver Food
In many rural areas, schoolchildren rely on their lunchtime school meal to meet their daily nutritional needs. For them, a school closure doesn’t meant just quarantine, it also means food insecurity and malnutrition. But if drones could be mobilised to deliver basic nutrition, we could keep quarantines in force while still ensuring that the most vulnerable are fed. Even where reliable transport networks exist, drone delivery could help alleviate the burden on supply-chain management workers who don’t have the luxury of working in isolation since food and essential medicine delivery have to continue.
Using Drones For Surveillance
China is already using drones to encourage social compliance and distancing, something which may have helped Italian authorities curtail the 40 000 people who defied the national lockdown. In South Africa, what if drones tweeted photos of people who flouted social restrictions during lockdown?
There are some obvious sensitivities here. We want to feel like we are above naming and shaming, and that individual liberty, personal freedoms and the right to privacy take precedence even during times of crisis. But during what is effectively a global state of emergency, enforcing compliance may be the lifeline we need to survive. Already in France on the country’s very first day of lockdown, over 4 000 people were fined for ignoring rules around non-essential travel. Fines were initially set at 35 euros, then 135 euros, and now 375 euros. Governments everywhere are trying to find tipping points where behaviour actually changes, whether the application of pressure is social or economic.
Pushing Cash Alternatives – Even In The Informal Sector
While the vaccine race is on, cash is a transmission risk. This is the time for South Africa to push digital payment acceptance beyond chip-and-pin and tap-to-pay cards. We need fintech startups to think of solutions that are easy to implement, that satisfy our regulators and that help bank the unbanked who still only trust in cash. Think of how easily a virus could spread inside a minibus taxi where social distancing is virtually impossible. If necessary, taxi operators should be equipped with thermal imaging devices to prevent high-risk commuters from travelling. Although expensive, it will almost certain cost the economy less than a widescale virus spread.
COVID-19 spreads easily: coughing, sneezing, and hand-to-face transmission are the common routes of transmission. Although it doesn’t like heat, the virus is hardy and stays active on hard surfaces and clothes for at least a few hours.
In response, a startup recently developed bacteria- and virus-resistant textiles using zinc, silver and graphic nanoparticles. The textiles keep their anti-pathogen activity for over 100 washes even at high heat. This could help us ensure that an elbow sneeze or simply brushing up against a countertop or till-point doesn’t increase transmission.
South Africa has a real opportunity to use these technologies to augment the effects of a lockdown. Although experimental, they’re starting to prove their effectiveness in China, where community transmission rates have steadily started to decline. Let’s hope we all follow suit.
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