The current wave of COVID-19 pandemic could not have come at a worse time for the global economy which was already showing signs of slowdown & recession. Even the growth engines of the world; China and India were battling economic fatigue and declining growth. Nearly every country across the world is forced to devote precious resources to fight this pandemic which includes long durations of public lockdowns. This will further stress the already fragile economy of these countries.
On 30th March, Richard Kozul-Wright, the Director of Globalization and Development Strategies at UN’s Trade and Development Agency (UNCTAD) gave his reading of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Even so the world economy will go into recession this year with a predicted loss of global income in the trillions of dollars. This will spell serious trouble for developing countries, with the likely exception of China and the possible exception of India.” According to UNCTAD, “the consequences of a combined health pandemic and a global recession will be catastrophic for many developing countries and halt their progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.” It also asked for a $2.5 trillion coronavirus crisis package for developing countries.
Indian economy is not expected to remain decoupled from the global recession and is likely to face severe challenges. On 27th March, Moody’s Investor’s Services estimated India’s growth rate for 2020 to reduce to 2.5%, down from its earlier estimate of 5.3%. Should the 21-day lockdown extend any further, there is bound to be another revision, According to Arun Singh, Chief Economist at Dun & Bradstreet India, “As lockdowns are imposed in other global manufacturing hubs, besides China, the extent of impairment to global supply chain and global growth is likely to increase”.
Clearly, the current crisis is unprecedented it its scale and reach and has acted as a major disruptor globally.
Technology at the Forefront of Fighting a Pandemic
As countries across the world struggled to contain the virus, the deaths and infections continued mounting rapidly. On 31st March, according to Worldometers, the number of COVID-19 cases crossed 9,50,000 while the total number of deaths amounted to more than 48,000. However, this number is highly disputed as it is widely believed that China has hidden its true numbers from global scrutiny.
China has officially owned upto approximately 81,000 cases and 3,300 deaths. However, photos coming out of Wuhan show thousands of urns daily being handed over by seven crematoriums as part of the traditional grave tending festival, which makes one believe that the actual death count in Wuhan alone may be in tens of thousands.
Technology, especially the Internet of Things could be used as a major tool to fight the spread of such pandemics and contain it with minimal economic loss and disruption.
The Internet of things is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines provided with unique identifiers and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. Data is collected by sensors installed on end user devices which is sent to cloud servers for analytics and decision making. Ubiquitous Connectivity is the fundamental feature of IoT. Medical IoT or MIoT is a combination of Communication, Medicine & Biology. It helps healthcare professionals to quickly identify & isolate the source of infection, prevent the infection to spread in the community and remotely treat the patients infected by the virus.
Identifying the Infection
An early detection system is the best way to control infections into graduating rapidly to pandemic proportions. However, urbanization presents its own sets of challenges to monitor and contain any pandemic. In 2019, a study at MIT had used mobile phone data to study the interplay between human mobility and dengue virus outbreaks during 2013 and 2014 in the complex urban environment of the city-state of Singapore. The results showed that human mobility is a major factor in the spread of vector-borne diseases such as dengue even on the short scale corresponding to intra-city distances. By focusing on the commuting patterns of people, it is possible to simulate models to find the spread of the disease. Health Workers can quickly focus on patient zero and identify everyone who has come into contact with the infected person and move to quarantine / isolate those persons. As COVID-19 has emerged from the Wuhan province of China, IoT tools such as Geographic Information System (GIS) could be used as an effective tool to curb the spread of pandemics by acting as an early warning system. Scanners at airports across the world could be used to monitor temperature and other symptoms.
Isolating the Infection
Identifying infected persons and then quickly quarantining them is the next step to control the pandemic. Artificial Intelligence enabled sensors and interconnected security cameras can be used by health care professionals to monitor and enforce patient compliance in real time. Geofencing devices with GPS can easily identify and track the movements of any patient under quarantine and prevent the spread of further community infection. In case of any emergency, driverless autonomous vehicles can be used to transport patients to a hospital and further reduce human to human interaction.
A smartphone-based application with P4 medicine requirements (Predictive, Preventative, Personalized, Participatory) can assist healthcare professionals. It will be connected to a centralized database hosted on Cloud which will be available to all the healthcare professionals. It will contain the medical history, records of patients along with their diagnosis. Artificial Intelligence based diagnosis will provide real time accurate diagnosis & recommendations. This will enable healthcare professionals to mine the information which will help them to work more efficiently. The app will facilitate 2-way communications between the patient & his doctors, thereby leading to more efficient use of resources. It will ensure a long-term follow-up of patients and prevent any more infection in the community.
Wearable devices can monitor body temperature, heartbeat, blood pressure and other variables. They can provide doctors with the data required for diagnosis. This will also reduce the stress on hospitals which may be running short of beds for infected persons. As the patient is treated while he is in quarantine, the subsequent risk of further infection is greatly reduced. Drones could also be used to supply medicines and essentials, thereby reducing human interaction which would drastically reduce new infections. Fumigation of the patient carriers/ambulances can be done through robots.
The importance of connecting patients, registration, wearable device (could be phone app initially) for tracking, consultation, diagnosis, treatment, mapping, contact tracing and sharing of information in real time cannot be stressed more at this time which would all fall under the gambit of IoT.
Governance and Delivery
Patient management is not the only aspect of pandemic that the Government has to deal with lot of other aspects of day to day life covering the economy, governance, policing, supply chain. The elderly care, daily wage labor, the students, the agriculture, the industry all have to be taken care.
Machine learning can be used to find new drugs for the treatment of the virus. Food Stores invariably face a huge demand as people tend to indulge in panic buying and stock up on items. This causes a severe stress on the supply-chain of these stores. If these stores invest in digital payments, e-commerce, they will be better prepared for disruptions. 3D printing can be used to quickly manufacture hospital rooms and other medical equipment to ease the stress on healthcare facilities.
Educational institutes can use Blockchain based applications to keep track of their students, their learning and also issue digital certificates. Governments around the world can use location tracking data gleaned from the smartphones to prevent any large scale gathering of people and prevent community transmission of the virus during any outbreak. India is disbursing financial assistance to Aadhaar based bank accounts using Direct Benefit Transfer under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY).
Challenges in the Interconnected World
The key to Internet of Things is the vast number of interconnected devices on a network. As multiple countries around the world enforced a complete lockdown to contain the spread of the pandemic, companies asked their employees to work from home thereby reducing the spread of the infection. As a consequence, both data and voice traffic on networks shot up exponentially.
According to a report in the World Economic Forum, internet usage increased by as much as 50% in several countries. Tech news website ‘The Register’ reported that collaborative working platforms, such as Microsoft Teams and the video conference platform Zoom, were struggling to keep up with the increase in users’ demands. In USA, Verizon reported a surge of 22% in web and 25% voice traffic for March 12-19 week. Similar figures were reported by most ISPs around the world. Streaming platforms like Amazon, Netflix and YouTube too reported a major surge in their traffic.
Europe which bore the blunt of the pandemic in countries like Italy, Spain, France, United Kingdom etc, also saw a major surge in internet demand and consumption. This forced the European Commission’s Internal Market Commissioner, Thierry Breton to issue a public demand for help “Streaming platforms, telecom operators and users, we all have a joint responsibility to take steps to ensure the smooth functioning of the internet during the battle against the virus propagation”. As a result, YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime have decided to reduce streaming quality of their services in Europe, so that their services do not chock the networks as millions of people stuck in home consume more content online.
In India, TSPs saw a 10% surge in web traffic as people started to work from home. This resulted in network degradation and drop in voice calls. As the networks seemed to be getting overwhelmed, the Cellular Operators of India (CoAI) had to step in and issue a note on 21st March stating “We have already written to the streaming platforms to undertake technical measures to ease the pressure on infrastructure. We believe this will be more effective if a similar communication is sent from DoT to these firms offering streaming video services”.
India needs a quick overhaul of its infrastructure which would mean release of additional spectrum by the government to the TSPs, fast tracking the fiber rollout, creation of more WiFi hotspots, improving Virtual Private Network (VPN) connections etc. Average data usage per subscriber is expected to rise sharply in India and the stakeholders need to reimagine the network traffic management. If the existing infrastructure is not upgraded quickly, it may lead to a complete collapse of the network.
Safety in the Interconnected World
As organizations across the world ramp up their operations and strive to serve their consumers, they are also faced with increased cyber security threat. Cybercriminals can exploit the weaknesses and vulnerabilities to exploit the connected devices and the network itself. This presents a challenge to the cybersecurity teams who must learn to evolve with the evolving threat perception.
As work from home increases, users who don’t have the same quality of security ecosystem, as their office, may find themselves to be the target of directed phishing, smishing, vishing and ransomware attacks. Home WiFi systems usually suffer from low degree of protection and may pose as an opportunity for hackers.
In 2016, the Mirai botnet had compromised millions of devices including connected cameras. Across India, local governments are increasingly using connected cameras for security purposes. In 2017, the WannaCry ransomware attack had a crippling effect on hospitals & interconnected devices. Criminals wearing medical masks during a pandemic may be able to overcome facial recognition systems.
On 12th March, a major cyber-attack hit Brno University Hospital in the Czech Republic. The hospital which is one of the largest COVID-19 testing facility in Czech Republic was hit by a ransomware attack forcing the hospital to cancel its operations and shift patients to another hospital. This was a major disruption in the fight against COVID-19 as the hospital was responsible for testing blood samples from whole of Central Europe. Cybersecurity experts have also discovered an android application named Covid-19 which claims to track maps from Johns Hopkins University, whereas it contains spying malware which tracks mobile users in Libya.
Cybersecurity professionals have identified another ransomware called CovidLock which directs users to a website called coronavirusaa[.]site. The ransomware locks down the infected device until a ransom of $100 is paid in Bitcoins. It also steals all the information stored on the infected device.
Hackers and cybercriminals can exploit the public fear during a pandemic by offering them services which may have malware associated with them. Critical and sensitive facilities like hospitals & medical devices can be targeted by these criminals as the hackers may feel safe during the ensuing chaos. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) can be used to cause a breakdown in critical services and exact a heavy price.
In India, cybercriminals targeted PM Modi’s PM Cares Relief Fund by creating fake Unified Payment Interfaces (UPIs). This led to an official warning from the government’s Press Information Bureau (PIB). As cyberattacks continued, Lt General Rajesh Pant, the National Cyber Security Coordinator in PMO issued a strict warning “our cyber police will hunt out these scums from under whichever rocks they are hiding and bring them to justice.”
Managing Disruption during a Global Pandemic
The current health crisis which has gripped the world can be seen as an inflection point between digital transformation and businesses. It has also impressed upon various stakeholders to invest more robustly in digital technologies. It is also a challenge to the security planners who have to guard against security threats and also ensure business continuity. Hospitals must have emergency backup systems which ensure seamless continuity of its operations and database. Rogue nations and intelligence agencies who attempt attacks on healthcare facilities must be warned of immediate kinetic consequences.
Standardized protocols, regulatory controls will allow seamless sharing of information and data between various devices. This will help in managing security breaches and dealing quickly with them. Adoption of universal standards will result in faster and more efficient response to any future disaster or pandemic.
The socioeconomic disruption caused by COVID-19 will be a lasting one and poses a challenge to planners and leaders globally. Because of interconnected trade and business any future pandemic may spread rapidly globally and infect millions. Some countries may be less geared to tackle the crisis than others. But with challenges come opportunities. There is a pressing need for quicker 5G rollout in India. This is also an opportune time to test driverless cars on Indian roads when traffic is not there and to use drones for delivery & monitoring. Marrying Human Intelligence and labor with IoT to find solutions is the way to go. Necessity is the mother of inventions and hopefully, public-private partnership can lead to many new innovations. Without a collaborative approach, any global approach to deal with any future pandemic will be compromised.
(This article has been co-authored by Krishna Kant Sharma and Ishita Sen)