COVID-19: Leveraging Technology for Social Distancing on a Global Scale
There have been widespread virus outbreaks in the past, from Ebola in recent times to the Spanish flu more than a century ago. Understanding the root cause, finding the antidote, and ensuring that the treatment reaches the infected people were the main challenges in those epidemics. Experts joined their heads and worked towards the common goal of resolving the crisis, and eventually did so successfully. COVID-19 pandemic is unlike any that we have witnessed, at least in the recent history, in the sense that it has made human collaboration a risk factor in itself.
This novel coronavirus infection spreads through respiratory droplets or touching eyes, nose, or mouth after physical contact with an infected surface. The virus has only a single RNA strand, which makes it highly potent for mutation. Since this strain of coronaviruses was not known to us, there is no vaccine or medication available yet. Containing its spread is largely the only strategy to control this global health crisis.
As a result, most countries have imposed restrictions on traveling and human gathering. Offices all over the world are totally or partially closed, with a large fraction of the staff working from home to ensure business continuity sans the infection risk. People who are on the frontline of combating this crisis – healthcare practitioners, law enforcement personnel, relief workers, etc. – are being equipped with the required protective gear but providing the same to the whole population is practically impossible. That is why safe distancing of individuals is being practiced in places that cannot be shut down, such as medical facilities and municipal offices. That being said, ensuring every individual is at a safe distance from another is a daunting task in itself, to say the least.
The Role of Technology
While the use of the latest technologies has varied per the law and policies of each country, their significance and relevance in times of such crisis are no longer debatable. This global health crisis has also underlined the importance of the infrastructure. Countries that had sophisticated infrastructure have been able to leverage available technologies timely and optimally. Countries with a not-so-active stance towards the adoption of new technologies have had to hastily look for solutions to manage the situation.
In this regard, the significance of surveillance infrastructure has come to the fore. The technology that has always been associated with law enforcement and security personnel has made its mark as a savior during this pandemic.
Prevention through 'Vision'
Face recognition, people counting, and similar vision technologies have been at the forefront of the effort to enforce quarantines and social distancing, identify potentially infected people and those who came in contact with them, and even notify individuals about their visit to infection hot zones.
The face recognition application analyzes the facial contours of individuals and identifies them with up to 98% accuracy. When integrated with indoor and outdoor CCTV networks, it can add tags to every individual that it spots in its periphery. The information can be saved as anonymized encrypted codes on a centralized server (on-premise or cloud) to avoid duplicity and redundancy. When a person is diagnosed with a contagious disease, his/her whereabouts can be found by feeding his/her facial scan to the face recognition software. The software will match the facial contours of the specific person with the data collected through the CCTV networks to point out the places the individual has recently been to. Similarly, others who have been to those places at the same time can be identified and notified to get tested. This technology, thus, not only facilitates timely diagnosis and treatment but also prevents a total lockdown of daily affairs, which has a direct impact on the economy.
Face recognition technology is also a better option for access control than RFID/BLE-enabled systems. In the current scenario, or in any environment where physical contact is potentially hazardous, face recognition-based access control allows people to enter and exit premises without coming in contacting with (or even close to) the installed device. Similarly, the technology can be used to capture employee attendance without making them touch any surface.
The people counting technology, which focuses on counting individuals in unit area, is similarly crucial in managing people gatherings. The role of this technology is paramount especially when even security and law enforcement personnel are equally at the risk of exposure (and in all similar situations). Leveraging IoT and automation, people counting software can trigger an alarm to the authorities every time the number of people per unit area exceeds the specified count or when two or more individuals breach the recommended safe distance.
In healthcare facilities, cameras with body heat sensing capability can enable contactless monitoring of patients exhibiting contagious symptoms. This will reduce the chances of medical practitioners contracting any infection and being its carrier to others. The technology can be used to monitor body temperature and behavior of people in both indoor and outdoor environments. On detecting specific conditions in a person, the face recognition technology can play the complementary role of identifying the individual for the subsequent actions to be taken.
Vision analytics does not require complex re-architecture of the infrastructure and can be integrated with the existing setup. In fact, federal and state governments of several countries have partnered with leading technology providers to effectively enforce preventive measures and expedite treatment and cure. Of course, the wider the infrastructure, the more helpful these technologies have been.
Truth, Not Optimistic Projections
The lack of precedence to COVID-19 is undeniable, but what is also undeniable is that we are more technologically equipped to tackle crises like this than ever before. Technologies like IoT, AI, and analytics have been the ammunition of the governments, scientists, and medical professionals in their battle against this disease and treating the infected. Most of the commendable measures undertaken by the countries that have set benchmarks for others have been empowered by the latest technological advancements. From the use of AI for viral genomes to harnessing IoT for omnichannel tracking of people who have been infected or came in contact with the infected, from vision sensors for identifying every individual to analytics for creating real-time heat maps of the disease, the ambitious use of technologies at our disposal is the highlight of tackling COVID-19.
Viral outbreaks are such natural phenomenon upon which we can never claim to have total control. Considering our present and the past, being prepared for the worse in the future will be the key to minimum disruption due to such calamities.