How data analysis, AI, and IoT will shape the post-pandemic ‘new normal’

Pandemics are shocks to communities throughout the world. Each community’s response emerges from the countless changes that individuals make in their daily lives to protect themselves while trying to maintain a semblance of normality.

Grassroots responses often emerge first in such crises, but they may not be the most effective approach for slowing the contagion’s spread. From a technological standpoint, solutions invariably involve various blends of remote collaboration, contactless transactions, and replacement of manual processes with automated, robotic, and other human-free processes.

When a contagion is raging, grassroots responses can be counterproductive if everybody’s operating at cross-purposes. Lack of central coordination can confuse the situation for everybody, stoking a panic-driven infodemic that social media can exacerbate, drowning out guidance from public health officials and other reliable sources. To ensure effective orchestration of community-wide responses to a contagion, there is no substitute for authoritative data analytics to drive effective responses at all levels of society.

Going forward, we can expect to see more data-driven, top-down orchestration of pandemic preparedness and remediation among public, private, and nonprofit organizations. China’s experience is instructive in this regard. Though the outbreak’s inception in Wuhan was less than half a year ago, the country has responded rapidly with a top-down, nationwide approach to manage the crisis. Chinese authorities are orchestrating vast resources to save lives, control the spread of infection, and guide individuals for testing, treatment, and quarantining.

In contrast, the United States and other nations seem to be responding to the emergency in a chaotic, bottom-up fashion. The key elements in China’s response are impressive. Leveraging sophisticated data analytics and other digital tools, it has responded to COVID-19 through:

  • Self-service health screening: Self-service screening tools have reduced nonessential hospital visits and caregiver workloads in China while mitigating the risks of cross-infection. Within the country, Tencent, Alibaba, and vertical online healthcare platforms now offer remote medical services to the public. People consult with doctors online, conduct self-assessments, and decide whether to go to a hospital for further medical checks or remain at home.
  • Community outreach: China’s digital platforms allow volunteer teams of community residents to assist in disinfection and deliver supplies aided by digital community management and communication tools. Citizens receive a health QR code that lets them submit information regarding travel to major epidemic outbreak regions. It enables compilation of data on close contacts with infected people and other relevant matters, and it enables an assessment on a three-color scale that indicates a person’s recent virus-related health history.
  • Remote medicine: Digital technologies have allowed China’s healthcare professionals to apply their talents to a large number of COVID-19 cases over long distances. China’s 5G networks have allowed many Wuhan hospitals to connect with counterparts in Beijing, who provide real-time consultation based on transmission of ultra-high-definition medical images.
  • Supply-chain orchestration: China has used these same technologies, along with the Internet of Things, to rapidly orchestrate an entire manufacturing, logistics, and healthcare supply chain. This has enabled the country to coordinate thousands of domestic firms to build and equip hospitals for testing and treatment of COVID-19 patients. The country has been able to rapidly scale up the production of masks, protective clothing, and disinfectants.
  • Location matching: China has implemented a differentiated, location-specific response to limiting COVID-19 transmission. It uses big data analytics and artificial intelligence to estimate the probability that a particular neighborhood or individual was exposed to COVID-19. It matches the locations of smartphones to known locations of infected individuals or groups. It uses this information plus travel data to target government-mandated virus testing to high-risk individuals.

Likewise, neighboring Taiwan has put together a comprehensive program of technology-driven tactics for controlling COVID-19’s spread in the country. Distilling from those East Asian nations’ experiences, I’m proposing a new normal for every country; it involves the following data-driven pillars of top-down response to raging pandemics:

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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