The global COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the crucial need for a rapid, joined-up approach to tackling such threats to our health – and virtually every aspect of our daily lives. Technology holds the key to ensuring we can live with the virus threat rather than dying from it. In the first of a series of three blogs, we explore how different sectors of society are being affected, what their concerns are – and what their desired outcomes look like.
Where are we now?
After an initial period of what looked like a contained outbreak, COVID-19 has triggered a worldwide pandemic, a subsequent global economic shutdown and many nations enforcing varying degrees of lockdown on their citizens.
Unprepared for a global pandemic, health services have been pushed to breaking point, with critical supply chains disrupted. Front-line workers have been sent to battle a highly contagious disease without the necessary equipment to treat increasing numbers of critical-care patients.
Governments have been forced to react by taking unprecedented action, including putting local manufacturers on a war footing to cover the shortage of mission-critical goods and, in the short-term, using the strength of central banking to carry out economic intervention with expansionist monetary policies and fiscal stimulus.
With the costs of keeping whole economies in stasis reaching astronomical heights – and the prospect of multi-generational debts piling up – the approach is quickly reaching the end of the road. If a solution for reopening economies is not found quickly, the subsequent predicted deep global recession could prove more fatal than the pandemic that caused it.
Recent projections estimate that the impact of the virus is likely to persist in a material way until 2022, with new cases expected until 2024. With globalisation, the likelihood of future pandemics is set to increase. So the time is ripe for a technology-led approach to co-ordinating an effective nationwide pandemic response.
The different sectors of society affected by the current crisis can broadly be divided into four "stakeholder" groups – individuals, businesses, the health service and the government – each with their own concerns:
Individuals – how can I stay safe, protect the people I care about, regain some normality to my life and continue to earn a living?
Businesses – how can we continue to provide services to customers, with workers who are currently unable or unwilling to carry out their jobs, in order to remain a going concern?
The health service – how can we save as many lives as possible and stop our services from being overwhelmed, whilst continuing to supply our front-line workers with the correct equipment to keep them safe?
Government – how can we protect both the public and the economy so we can continue to prosper as a nation both during and after the pandemic?
Individuals want the crisis and ongoing disruption to end as quickly as possible but – having accepted this situation is likely to last longer than first anticipated – they want to minimise their risk of exposure to the coronavirus whilst resuming something that closely resembles normal life.
A combination of fear and acceptance is currently resulting in a generally high compliance rate for lockdown procedures. However, the longer the lockdown persists – and especially as case numbers decrease – the more likely it is that public opinion will shift. Lockdown fatigue will result in higher exposure risk and uncontrolled second-wave outbreaks, with future national lockdowns being less likely to be adhered to. So a long-term solution must minimise nationwide lockdowns.
Major government intervention has enabled many businesses to be put on life support. But businesses not in key sectors such as food production or healthcare are likely to have faced an unprecedented supply, demand and capacity shock.
Financial services and those who create virtual products, such as software, can function to some extent through remote working practices, and are likely to be less affected if dealing directly with consumers. But for those in the B2B or enterprise space, capital investments and M&A activities are likely to be postponed indefinitely and so will be impacted in the medium-to-long term.
Businesses in the manufacturing, hospitality or entertainment sectors require physical footfall in order to conduct business. These are often smaller entities, which are heavily dependent on timely cash flow, with likely only small amounts of reserves. Protecting these businesses will either require further large-scale industrial intervention or a mobile population and a fully active economy. Businesses need the economy to be restarted as soon as possible.
The health service requires early warning of localised outbreaks to ensure the right levels of response and equipment such as personal protective equipment. Ideally, a mobile health-worker task force is needed to provide relief to local front-line workers in hardest hit areas, which will suffer from fatigue and attrition due to prolonged exposure.
Health service staff goodwill and morale will deplete the longer the crisis persists. A sudden spike in cases in the event of a second wave from the re-opening of the economy could overwhelm the current system. Flattening a second wave of cases and keeping them at a manageable and sustainable level is paramount for an already stretched service.
Drastically improving the situation with improved treatments and the availability of large-scale effective vaccination programmes is not likely in the short-to-medium term. A non-medical solution needs to be rapidly implemented to ease and reduce the demand currently placed on the healthcare sector. Minimising cases and managing dwindling resources carefully is the only viable option currently available.
The government needs fine-grained and locally tailored data-driven policies and response strategies to minimise the country-wide impact on citizens and the economy. It needs to be able to enforce quarantine/lockdown zones – and have the ability to map, source and enable local pop-up micro-suppliers of mission-critical resources.
Ultimately, the government needs to have sufficient data to be able to make correct decisions for national strategy.
A technology-led response
In the second part of this series we will discuss technical challenges we must solve to find a suitable solution to implement. But if you want to read more about how to adopt a technology-lead approach to co-ordinating an effective response to COVID-19, please download our strategy paper.