To say that COVID-19 has had any upside would appear cruel and unsympathetic. The ongoing pandemic has killed some 4.6 million people as of the middle of 2021 and continues to take a toll on humanity. It also sparked the biggest worldwide recession since the Great Depression, crippled economies everywhere, and destroyed over 22 million jobs in advanced countries alone.
COVID-19 also exposed our existing systems’ startling fragility and inadequacies, including the fields of health care, government, and education. The speed at which vaccines were developed points out that where there is a will, as they say — within science, business, and government — there is a way. But the subsequent distribution of those vaccines, with richer countries receiving them before poorer ones, points to the inequalities of access to such basic necessities as quality healthcare for all, and the rudimentary medical supply chains in underdeveloped countries.
The digital divide between communities was also revealed. While many people simply started working from home, marginalized racial groups, women, the poor, the elderly, and those living in rural areas bore the disproportionate brunt of COVID-19 infections because the nature of their jobs rendered them unable to telecommute.
Can any good come of the modern era’s first truly global health crisis with all those trials and tribulations?
If nothing else, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst to accelerate plans for innovation, especially in information technologies (IT). Emerging technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and blockchain are all key areas that were impacted by COVID-19. Indeed, their development may help us face and defeat the next pandemic faster and in a better way while also reducing the effects on human lives.
The main takeaways for technological developments in a post-pandemic world are the need for cooperation and coordination. However, this so-called “system integration” would require relevant stakeholders — think health organizations, leading technology firms, and governments — to work together to share information, strategies, data, and resources to take on the next coronavirus or other global health challenges. The most resilient business organizations will embrace automation, cloud computing, and collaboration platforms.
The importance of these latter two factors became obvious when students and workers started learning or working from home, respectively, in March 2020. Zoom meetings quickly became the ubiquitous bane of the workday. This “teleworking” required increased use of cloud computing by a variety of industries and governments. This resulted in increased traffic on remote connectivity networks like Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, and the aforementioned Zoom.
And while this new method of communication resulted in its fair share of comic technological mishaps, thanks to wayward meeting filters or the inevitable collision of home and work life, it also led to increased efficiencies, such as more people being able to attend more meetings and share documents with ease. And with many employees opting to continue to work from home, the result will inevitably be significant investments by companies and governments into video conferencing and group decision-making support systems. Of course, there will also be additional hard costs associated with this development, such as cloud servers and video conferencing, as well as licenses for support products.
Health care has also been a huge driver of IT innovation in the wake of COVID-19, albeit not always willingly. Health information privacy is understandably a key concern for both doctors and patients, so sharing any such data is a sensitive topic. But the ongoing siloing of health care information due to privacy concerns could potentially delay the development of vaccines and other responses to large-scale medical crises.
Viral research, however, could be revolutionized by an emerging culture of collaboration. COVID-19 prompted epidemiological researchers to map the virus’ entire genetic makeup (a.k.a. its genome) and publish it online within days. This sharing of information not only sped up the development of vaccines but helped identify and track mutations of the virus.
This global collaboration on important health issues is not only possible, but preferable to competition. The continued development of blockchain technology — most often associated with the privacy of financial transactions — could be applied to health care in instances like this to allow for the secure sharing of patient data for more successful combating of coronaviruses and the like.
Other IT developments in health will include the accelerated digitization of health records, which would, in turn, require reinforced cybersecurity measures. Wearable tech could also result in data collection that helps stem outbreaks of food poisoning or flus, and the uptake of telehealth and remote care management.
The government was also forced to embrace technology and innovation more vigorously, something most of the private sector has already done. This included updating IT to allow employees to work from home and developing collaborative tools, virtual meetings, and shareable cloud technology.
Like other government sectors, COVID-19 revealed gaps in education’s ability to provide service in a crisis. Just think about the many technological and emotional difficulties our children experienced while trying to learn. Not all public schools have a well-designed or cogent digital strategy, including intuitive digital tools and platforms. Expect further digitization of this sector, including automation of administrative tasks so teachers can spend more time teaching.
No one is glad COVID-19 happened. It continues to be devastating and proves just how easy it is to disrupt life on a global scale, despite our belief that we live in stable times. But it is innovations that will hopefully address inadequacies and inequities that have for too long gone untended. In IT, the general decentralization of information and services will result in less reliance on local, server-based systems and increased demand for cloud-based data management, and previously insular sectors, like education, health care, and government, have been forced to look outside themselves for ways to cope with disruptions. So, these upheavals do carry their set of benefits.
Sean Plummer | Contributing Writer