First-hand accounts from the front line of the battle against COVID-19 at ground zero have shown the critical role both local and large Chinese technology companies played in containing and minimising the spread of the virus. This should serve as a wake-up call for Australia and America.
On the ground in China
Dr Bruce Aylward, leader of the World Health Organisation team that visited China to assess the country’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has seen first-hand how China suppressed the coronavirus outbreak
One aspect of this was the role of technology platforms, including online health, food and pharmaceuticals delivery and social media.
When it comes to people needing medication they are regularly prescribed, like insulin or blood pressure or heart medications there should be no need to go into a surgery. China moved a significant part of their standard medical care online.
Telehealth, or having a video-enabled consultation with a doctor, is not new in Australia having been used for remote medical consultations and in aged-care settings.
Australia has moved quickly to introduce new telehealth Medicare Benefits Schedule codes enabling doctors who have had to isolate due to COVID-19 to continue to support the patients in their care also directly affected by the virus.
This is a very practical approach to supporting the medical system as more cases emerge. This virus will likely put online health measures to the test in ways not experienced before.
Stories have emerged from Wuhan and other places of the critical roles delivery drivers have played in this pandemic. With an estimated fifteen million people having to order food online and have it delivered, government employees were redeployed to other roles, including the delivery of medications and food.
One way to support small hospitality businesses like cafes and restaurants is to move to takeaway only, enabled by good e-commerce and delivery infrastructure. New York has already put in place new rules for the city’s restaurants, bars and cafes to shift to delivery and take-away only. Los Angeles has followed suit.
Chinese tech giants Weibo, Tencent and WeChat played their part as information providers and as connectors of isolated individuals. Chinese social media giant Tencent is expected to report an increase in new players and use of its mobile games amid the virus lockdown in China.
Meanwhile in the US
Since the WHO declared a public health emergency, the US tech giants known collectively as FAMGA (Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon) have seen steep losses in value, like the rest of the stock market.
Facebook and Google are feeling the impact of reduced advertising budgets. Facebook, Apple and Microsoft will be impacted by Chinese supply chain reliance for hardware. Amazon has had the smallest market cap decline to date with concerns over Chinese supply chain slowdowns offset by the likely ongoing reliance on delivery services as self-isolation increases.
Beyond their place in the stock market, these tech leaders of America, have an important role to play as the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold.
The US Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios has convened representatives from FAMGA, IBM, Cisco and Twitter to discuss how technology companies and major platforms will contribute to the effort to ensure the safety and health of the American people.
Their impact of course spreads beyond the borders of the United States and recognising the critical role these organisations play in disseminating information; coordination and amplification of authoritative facts and cracking down on conspiracy theories and scams was reportedly a key outcome of the meeting held last week.
Facebook and Google have already been open about taking action to address misinformation about COVID-19 on their platforms. Their success in doing so will be a measure of how well they have implemented responses to the fallout from the 2016 US election when the spread of misinformation and manipulation of technology platforms was a significant issue. An inability to address this effectively will no doubt send a strong signal to Congress about the need for future regulation.
Doing their part to amplify authoritative facts, Apple has introduced a COVID-19 Apple News section with only verified reporting from trusted news outlets. Apple has also sent a strong signal about the importance of social distancing by closing retail stores.
Microsoft and Amazon have long provided technology for enterprises that support remote working, enabling video meetings, content storage and collaboration, including across their own very large organisations.
They are well placed to use their expertise to provide insight for enterprise customers and small businesses about how their products and services can support the new normal confronting many organisations as they are asked to have workers stay at home during this pandemic.
With working remotely becoming the new normal for those businesses able to do so, technology will come to the fore enabling people to collaborate, connect and contribute productively.
Likewise, a pandemic that requires people to self-isolate at home for days or weeks provides perfect conditions for ecommerce enabled home delivery services to thrive. Amazon has already recognised an increase in online shopping and has brought on additional capacity to meet demand.
There appears to have been some confusion over the nature of Google’s partnership with the US government for a resource that draws together information from the WHO and the CDC for best practice prevention. What this will actually entail is as yet unknown.
Where to next
There may also be a role for technology such as artificial intelligence in the analysis of the very high level of research being openly made available by the scientific community.
To date over 700 papers on COVID-19 are openly available from the US National Library of Medicine’s PubMed central repository of scientific journals.
This cooperative approach to the scientific research on COVID-19 is beyond that seen for the SARS epidemic and will enable faster understanding of the virus and potential vaccines or treatments.
Given the different government systems of China and the United States the driving forces behind the response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be different.
However, both countries are great technological powers. We’ve had a glimpse of the way in which China has harnessed technology in their response. In this truly global challenge will we see technology reach its broadest potential – in this case the triple goal of keeping people free of infection, of finding the solution to protection and ultimately a cure?
Claire McFarland is the Director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney