Technology and the Pandemic: Fears within Hopes

With the evolution in ideas, mankind has gone through multiple ages through the history. Along with advancements in systems and institutions, the notion of security threats has evolved as well. A global crisis such as that of COVID-19 has startled all the pre-existing advanced mechanisms developed to wade off any crisis. Thus, future biological threats like coronavirus pandemic would require state-of-the-art technologies. This piece analyses how modern technologies are helping in containing the spread of COVID-19 outbreak and assisting in rapidly developing a vaccination as compared to responses to previous pandemics.

Since the beginning of this century, two other epidemics have been caused by the coronavirus family – the 2002-04 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in China and the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in Saudi Arabia. The SARS-COV-2 is novel because of the difference in genetic makeup of the virus as compared to that of the SARS virus of the early 2000s. During SARS, the virus genome was decoded after a year of the disease as compared to SARS-COV-2, whose genome was traced within a month after its outbreak in China.

Meanwhile, in order to accelerate the development of a vaccine, the vaccines which were shelved after the containment of the previous viruses are now proposed to be used for SARS-COV-2. Moreover, advanced manufacturing, cloud computing are also being used in addition to the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for vaccine preparation. It is hoped that as 2009 swine flu pandemic vaccine started producing results after first three months of the discovery of the virus, COVID-19’s vaccine will also follow the suit, when it is ready for human testing. But the availability of the vaccine for SARS-COV-2 is not expected before 12-18 months.

At the same time, the technological advancement of this age finds no precedence in the past pandemics in terms of scale and speed.  Comparing the preparation of the first Ebola vaccine which was five years faster than the time traditionally required for vaccine development i.e. more than 10 years, the robust development for SARS-COV-2 vaccine outmatches any of the previous disease outbreaks.

Apart from vaccine development, most of the developed states are using advanced technology to contain this novel virus till the development of vaccine. In this regard, drones are being used to spray disinfectants, delivering medical samples to limit human contact and delivering necessary items to people at their home. Cell phone tracking which utilises geospatial data is being employed to identify potential carriers.

In South Korea, a system based on travel history, credit card transaction records and CCTV footage was formulated to identify confirmed cases. Consequently, a map was shared with the public in order to locate if they had made a contact with any potential carrier or not, so that they are able to seek proper medical care if necessary. In Hong Kong, digital wristband synced with a smartphone app is deployed to ensure people are staying at their respective places of quarantine. t the University of Southern California, a virtual human agent by the name of ‘battle buddy’ is being developed for use in screening sick patients, monitor patient recovery and help hospital staff answer calls or patient questions. Meanwhile, cameras possessing AI-based multisensory technology are employed at airports to detect individuals with fever and those not wearing face masks as suspected carrier patients.

Health Code system introduced by China to trace users based on their travel history, time spent in infection hotspots and possible exposure to virus carriers has potential to become a new form of automated social control.

The containment of the virus opens broader ventures for governments around the world to enhance checks and balances on people. As Yuval Harari mentioned that the surveillance measures being deployed during this pandemic will not remain temporary but will become permanent security measures by the states even after the end of this pandemic. For instance, Health Code system introduced by China to trace users based on their travel history, time spent in infection hotspots and possible exposure to virus carriers has potential to become a new form of automated social control. In the pre-COVID-19 world system, the surveillance taking place was majorly ‘over the skin’ keeping the movements and online access of the people in check. But this pandemic has transformed surveillance into ‘under the skin’ where the government would be well aware of what is going on inside your body. Giving access to every health update will allow state authorities to be able to determine emotional behaviour when accessing political content online. Such approaches are making it legitimate for governments to know their people better than they know themselves. If such forms of control would be made the new normal then it would make Cambridge Analytica’s data hacking tactics look outdated. Such geo-tracking of citizens might be helpful for governments to impose lockdowns and ensure physical distancingut it may be open to misuse of personal data as well. As such practices keep growing in the name of fighting the pandemic, it is necessary to understand whether data acquired through massive state surveillance will be actually effective or not.

States should devise legislations which will not only ensure privacy but also would be an effective way to enforce lockdown to contain the spread of virus. With the transformation of the definition of security threats, states response in combating those unconventional threats should change as well. By strengthening of health facilitates, investment in technology and education world can deal with future pandemics in a plausible manner. Moreover, it remains of utmost importance that the states are transparent in their health surveillance and preferably come up with better alternatives which reduce risks to individual privacy. Though this spike in the spread of the pandemic’s graph caught the world off guard, if it was not for this age of technology, humankind could be in a far bigger trouble.

Rida Anwar

Rida Anwar

Rida Anwar is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She has studied International Relations from the National Defence University, Islamabad.

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