Point of View

Emerging technologies could have really helped manage COVID-19…if we’d only had some smart leadership

March 27, 2020

Soap and social distancing are the best answers that humankind has had thus far to COVID-19. But what about all the technological advancements that we’ve made? Shouldn’t artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, or quantum computing have saved us by now? It’s unfair to blame the technologies. The promise of emerging technologies in better managing a pandemic is real, but the reality is that we lack the leadership to proactively try something new at scale (see Exhibit 1).


Exhibit 1: The promise of emerging technologies in managing a pandemic is real, but we lack leadership.


Source: HFS Research, 2020



Emerging technologies can help us predict, track, detect, and understand pandemics


AI has already had an impact predicting the spread of COVID-19. The Canadian company BlueDot caught the virus early thanks to its AI algorithm, which looks at more than 100 datasets—including news sources, airline ticket sales, demographic data, climate data, and animal populations—to predict and track the spread of disease. It detected an outbreak of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, on December 31, 2019, and identified the cities that were at the highest risk of facing outbreaks of their own. Healthmap, developed by a team of researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital, integrates data from Google searches, social media and blog posts, and chat rooms to track the spread of COVID-19. These are sources of information epidemiologists don’t typically use but which are useful for identifying early signs of an outbreak and gauging the public’s reaction.


The internet of things (IoT), in combination with advanced analytics and ubiquitous connectivity, can also help by providing an early warning system to curb the spread of infectious diseases. Think of a network of virus-detection sensors coupled with facial recognition and location to identify, trace, and monitor people that may have contracted COVID-19. China and Spain have used drones to monitor people during lockdown campaigns, while South Korea has deployed them to help disinfect areas in Daegu, an epidemic hotspot.


Trust has also been a significant issue throughout the early months of the COVID-19. Viral images and videos of donated supplies being taken by non-medical personnel have caused an outrage on social media. This dramatic gap between supply and demand has led to a sharp rise in counterfeit production. Recording and tracking epidemic prevention materials, such as masks and gloves, has been one of the biggest challenges. Blockchain to the rescue! Acoer provides health care and life sciences institutes with blockchain solutions to easily track the virus and visualize how it is spreading around the world using an app called HashLog. Alipay launched a blockchain-based platform in China that enables users to trace the demand and the supply chains of medical supplies. Ant Financial’s (again, from China) blockchain-based collective claim-sharing platform with over 104 million users launched new functionality to process COVID-19 claims, helping the firm reduce both paperwork and the need for back-and-forth document delivery to clinics. 


And while it’s early days for quantum computing, its development pace has been astonishing. More than 150 billion programs and executions have been run on IBM’s quantum machines by more than 200,000 registered users in over 140 countries. Quantum’s promise to understand nature better and faster by a factor of 100 times could cut down the reaction time to understand a new virus like COVID-19.


But technologies alone cannot solve a global crisis. Where is the leadership?


There’s no way to sugar coat this, but COVID-19 has shown up the hollow leadership around the globe. Leaving aside the rhetoric and videos of handwashing while singing “Happy Birthday,” most country leaders have deflected, denounced, delayed, or disregarded COVID-19.


Consider this to understand the art of deflection and save your political base:


“They tried the impeachment hoax. … They tried anything.

… And this [COVID-19] is their new hoax.”

—US President Donald J. Trump (February 28, 2020)


Another leadership trait that we’ve witnessed is to deflect blame for the virus:


“China is to blame…because of the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.”

—Sen. John Cornyn, Texas (March 18, 2020)


Cornyn is citing a debunked conspiracy theory that COVID-19 began when a woman ate bat soup! The Chinese deflected expertly, saying that while COVID-19 was discovered in China, it did not originate in China.


Another strategy is to delay or cover it up. Several reports suggest that the Chinese government tried to cover up the virus, allowing it to spread unchecked in Wuhan for weeks, including among five million city residents who left the city, leading to a national and now global epidemic.


Finally, we have the disregard strategy—we’ll see when we get to it. The level of unpreparedness has been mind-boggling. The US disbanded its pandemic team, could not scale up COVID-19 testing (in fact, a man died before testing positive for COVID-19), is now struggling to find ventilators to meet the upcoming surge, and is even running out of masks and other protective gear for healthcare providers. Meanwhile, the UK was planning to accept a wave of infections to develop “herd immunity” until a week ago!


A bold visionary leader trying something new at scale is a far cry from what we have seen so far.


The Bottom Line: COVID-19 is a sad example of why technology alone cannot create the transformational impact that we so desire. We need a mindset shift, cultural change, and above all, leadership that pulls people and different solutions together—not breaks them apart. Technology can really help us be better prepared in the future, so let’s hope we can use this current crisis as a very tough lesson that we never need to repeat again.



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