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Technology and the fight against COVID-19

2019 came around like every other year, but unbeknown to the world, it had a string at its tail. The world had plans and was confident it all would go as envisioned. Tokyo was going to host the Olympics in 2020, Europe saw no possible delay to its Euro football championship.

Football supporters all around the world haunted each other and dreamed about the goals that their teams would meet. The global aviation industry has not been left out of the normal buzz that welcomes every New Year. Like the other sectors, they appeared to be in bad shape and made big estimates of sales.

Though the world appeared to be alright without a catastrophe in proportion brought to our horizon by COVID-19, the reports of a virus outbreak in Wuhan, China, started to waft in. The world did not seem to have shaken, but it was referred to as China’s crisis. To everyone’s dismay, by early 2020, the ‘China crisis’had become a global problem, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic.

At present, the pandemic has pulverized much of the global economic progress of the last few decades and has left about 2.5 million people dead worldwide. Even though the number is frightening and has only just begun to drop slowly, the world had feared the worst at the beginning. At some point, it seemed like the world was staring down the barrel of a pandemic with consequences similar to the 1918 flu pandemic.

As the world grappled with the horror unleashed on it by the invisible enemy, it became clearer that the greatest advantage the world had in the fight against Coronavirus was the technology at its disposal. It’s as if with every new challenge thrown at the world by COVID-19, people can find short-term solutions through technology to manage and control the spread of the virus while scientists worked to develop vaccines.

In Nigeria, for example, health officials had to work with Facebook to send push alerts to users with updates on signs and how to prevent infection; and Twitter to share reliable medical information from confirmed outlets. This was at the height of the virus disease when all kinds of rumours were making rounds about it. Also, in South Africa, the national health department has set up a WhatsApp program to provide residents with information on signs, preventive tips and testing information. Importantly, the service often dispels misleading statements about remedies, from consuming garlic and beetroot to taking hot water baths, and about scammers trying to take advantage of people’s fears.

When news emerged from Italy, where Coronavirus had wreaked bloodcurdling havoc, that handling of physical cash helped to spread the virus, the technology supporting cashless transactions became of immense help in the fight against the virus. In cities across Africa, one-fifth of African adults make use of mobile cash services.

In Kenya, Safaricom, the largest telecommunications company in the country, implemented a discount on M-Pesa, the leading mobile money product in East Africa, to minimize physical currency exchange. These came about as a result of President Uhuru Kenyatta demanding that “ways to deepen the use of mobile cash be explored in other to reduce the possibility of the virus spreading by physical cash handling”.

Related measures designed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission through mobile money were also adopted in Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda. In Togo, the government digitized social payments to transfer money to informal workers whose incomes have been greatly disrupted by COVID-19.

Outside the coasts of Africa, the Internet of Things (IoT) has made it possible for patients to be diagnosed and treated remotely and has allowed the supply of essential drugs and medical devices to isolated areas. Overwhelmed health services and limited access to in-person appointments during COVID-19 accelerated the need for remote medical care, especially for non-COVID-19 related health problems.

Technology is also helping epidemiologists and others track the progress of the disease and forecast its spread. In the UK, two major hospitals, Guy’s and St Thomas’, and King’s College London, recruited 1.5 million people in 2020 to download an app to their smartphones that allow them to track the progress of the disease.

On March 20th 2020, the government of Singapore unveiled an app called TraceTogether, which makes use of Bluetooth to identify who people have been with rather than where they have been. At some point, Singapore had 509 confirmed cases of the virus. Using TraceTogether, the Ministry of Health identified over 8,000 close contacts who were quarantined.

There is a the general feeling among some academics that smartphone connections on social networks might provide a substitute for their physical touch. In other words, the individuals that a person posts to on Instagram, Snapchat, WeChat, WhatsApp and other messages may be the people he or she meets in the real world, and hence maybe a good example for close friends and relatives.

Some scientists believe that wearable electronic devices can also help in tracking the spread of COVID-19. They believe that wearable devices, such as activity trackers and smartwatches, can provide unique insights into our health and well-being.

Unlike standard medical tests, which can occur less often in one year, wearable electronic devices provide constant access to real-time physiological results. This makes it easier to distinguish between deviations from the normal baselines of an individual.

Writing in Nature Biomedical Engineering, Xiao Li, Michael Snyder and colleagues from Stanford University School of Medicine and Case Western University have shown that smartwatch data, heart rate, number of regular steps and sleep time, can diagnose pre-symptomatic cases of COVID-19.

Researchers analyzed data (collected from devices such as Fitbits and Apple Watches) of 32 infected people, selected from a pool of more than 5,000 participants and examined associations between various metrics to detect aberrant physiology. They looked, in particular, at heightened resting heart rates (relative to a previous healthy window), and increased heart rates relative to several steps.

Twenty-six COVID-19 positive participants produced abnormal physiological signals four to seven days before the onset of symptoms or diagnosis, while six COVID-19 positive participants did not develop readily identifiable signals before the onset of symptoms. As a result, 81% of the participants could be described as hypothetically COVID-19 positive. The researchers also developed an online identification algorithm that could be used through real-time heart rate tracking to recognize the early stages of infection.

The fight against COVID-19 hasn’t been won yet, but the world has begun to win some battles against the deadly virus by steadily deploying the technology at its disposal against the virus. The recent announcement by UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, that from March 29th 2021, outdoor sports such as football, golf and tennis will be allowed to resume in England. This is an indication that the world has begun to reclaim some aspects of its suspended social life. The significance of this announcement is that up to ten thousand fans could be allowed to return to sports venues by mid-May.

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