Depending on your line of work, thinking about the road map out of the lockdown phase of the pandemic and what our lives will be like as long as we live with the virus and without proper vaccines and treatments is unnerving, to say the least.
More and more countries are announcing plans for the end of lockdown, but in the vast majority of cases, this means little more than social distancing, wearing masks, and other generic warnings. Few are considering what these measures, if taken seriously in order to prevent further outbreaks of the disease, will actually mean for society.
What about, for example, businesses that concentrate people in a closed space? If yours involves admitting people to a building, be it a university, a cinema or a restaurant, you should probably consider installing admission systems based on infrared cameras capable of detecting fever, as in the photograph. If those people you admit to your facilities do so on a regular and repeated basis, such as staff or students, you should also consider having diagnostic tests available, either routinely, or in cases where they have received alerts on their smartphones notifying them that they have been in contact with an infected person.
We’re also going to have to have a debate about the technology we use to track the spread of the disease. The EU has responded to Apple and Google’s initiative to develop this type of contact tracing application has been to check that it respects privacy legislation: how do we strike a balance between privacy and public health? Ideally, the traceability of infection should be possible only with anonymous identifiers transmitted via Bluetooth, but in practice, the scaling up of such a solution means that large amounts of data will be exchanged.
In a relatively small and highly civic-minded community like Singapore, which was the first to launch and open source a system, TraceTogether, such a scheme may be manageable, but in bringing it to larger communities, institutions like MIT are turning to mixed applications using Bluetooth and geolocation to segment at least the areas where a person has been, and thus increase the efficiency of the exchange of identifiers while guaranteeing user privacy. The difficulty is that we would be have to be imposed by law, which in principle contradicts the rules of the European Union; then there’s the question of people who try to get round it, either by making false reports claiming they’re infected, or by keeping silent when they are. And what about people for whom the simple process of installing an app, activating Bluetooth or keeping their smartphone charged is already a technological challenge (and even more so considering that keeping an app on all the time and exchanging codes via Bluetooth will eat into battery time.
Then there’s the question of who stores the data, even temporarily, and ensures its proper use? Private companies? Governments? And who decides which contact tracing app to use and on what basis? Interoperability?
Diagnostic tests, as I said before the declaration of the pandemic, are also fundamental. Progress is being made to make these diagnostic tests increasingly simple and cheaper, but given the difficulties of some countries in obtaining them, it is clear that we are still far from being there. This is also a good time for a debate about preventive health, about monitoring people on the basis of wearables or simple devices of various kinds, and about the future of health systems based on the early detection of diseases and illnesses, which can not only reduce suffering, but also the cost to the health system.
Technologically, relaxing the lockdown poses numerous challenges if we’re to avoid another wave of the disease. There is much talk of having to use masks, but what about deaf people who need to see the lips and the gestures of their interlocutors, or the increasingly widespread facial recognition systems: will masks protect us if we are constantly removing them? Can we balance practicing asepsis with the demands of everyday life?
Technology will play a huge role as we enter the next phase of dealing with the pandemic. That said, the devil is in the detail, and if we get things wrong, the value proposition of technology will be significantly diminished. When the pandemic was declared, a lot of things were done wrong because it was an emergency situation. However, relaxing the lockdown can be planned much better. Let’s get this right, please. There’s a lot at stake.