Can Technology Tackle Covid-19 Fear of The Unknown?

Article By : Nitin Dahad

With the Covid-19 entering our household during Christmas 2020, I thought I was in possession of the gadgets needed to keep on top of things...

I’ve always been a technophile and embraced new technology. From my first Sinclair ZX80 with tape deck to load programs and games, and its thermal printer, to the latest iPhone 12, I have always wanted to understand what new gadgets are capable of, and — since I started writing about technology in the mid-1980s — to also understand how technology can impact and enhance real-life environments.

Even when we recently replaced our family car with a new Honda, I was fascinated with its ADAS systems that come as standard. With features like lane-keep assist and active braking technology, I was like a kid in a sweet shop trying everything out. I searched all around the car, inside and outside, to figure out how it works. And the lane-keep assist feature is pretty effective (though I dare not take my hands off the wheel too long, for fear of the software errors I have written about last year). Even the driver monitoring system (DMS) that comes as standard seems quite impressive — though probably over-sensitive at times.

While we’ve got all this technology assisting us all around, there is one area of concern for me: I’m wondering about how much technology is really helping us in the fight against Covid-19. While a handful of countries have used technology effectively to keep it in check and keep case numbers and deaths down, I think the fear of the unknown about the virus in most countries is something that even technology is not helping to conquer, despite many advances in social distancing technologies and medical advances in everything from robot nurses to Bluetooth wireless stethoscopes.

With the virus entering our household during Christmas 2020, I thought I was in possession of the gadgets needed to keep on top of things so that if our conditions deteriorated, we would be able to take swift action. After all, everything I had read so far suggested you needed to watch the fever, and make sure your oxygen levels were stable. If any of them were not maintained within normal ranges, that was a sign that you’d end up as one of the statistics in hospital.

In the internet of things (IoT) age, we might call this monitoring “predictive maintenance,” in other words taking a specific corrective action when a data trend doesn’t look right. In the healthcare world, remote monitoring of patient data is possible.

So, armed with the iHealth non-contact thermometer I purchased in the summer of 2020, which visually looks like it might have come from the Apple stable, plus a decent oximeter, I thought we were well-equipped to monitor the fever and oxygen levels. With the right tools and a little knowledge, this brings out both the medical practitioner and the data scientist in you — albeit an amateur one with no particular qualifications apart from an engineering degree.

The daily monitoring multiple times a day ensured we could spot any trends. And this also helped us call out to emergency services a couple of times when something wasn’t improving. My biggest fear for both of us was that we’d have to be admitted into hospital and then end up in one of those body bags which the news media around the world constantly show you as the worst affected victims of the virus often end up.

With this being the driving factor in my mind, my aim was always to identify something before the virus got a chance to make us worse. Even when my oxygen level was low and I was advised to be taken to the hospital emergency unit by the clinicians in the call center, I was determined to figure out a way of avoiding the hospital visit. A desperate call to a doctor friend solved that momentary dilemma – he told me that if I tried walking up and down the stairs and my oxygen level came back up, then I could possibly avoid going to the hospital for oxygen. So, I made the attempt to force myself out of bed and make a couple of rounds on the stairs. Thankfully the oximeter reading showed a very slight improvement, so I decided that I was probably OK to continue recovery at home.

UK Covid-19 test and trace app
The UK official test and trace app uses anonymized tokens and Bluetooth to alert people to self-isolate after they’ve tested positive for Covid-19 or have been in proximity of someone who has the virus (Image: Nitin Dahad)

While being incapacitated for nearly 10 days, that didn’t stop my engineering training to understand how technology could be used to conquer the virus. The first thought came about the official test and trace app. How effective was it in policing those who had the virus? I wondered if I was to venture out (although I was in no condition to get up from my bed), would it alert the authorities. Something like the infamous “2319” child detection alert in Monsters Inc.

Maybe the Bluetooth-based test and trace app would trigger something similar around the 10-meter vicinity of the violator?

Sadly, that is not the case. In our aim to maintain privacy in the western world — despite displaying all our personal data on social media for any advertiser to mine — no identifiable data is transmitted by the app. Which is a good thing, I guess. But at least anonymized tokens could be used to discourage people from violating isolation rules? That would surely stop the spread, given that the UK has been talking about a 70% more transmissible mutation of the virus?

The UK test and trace app simply enables the smartphone to generate an anonymous token once a day and a second one that changes every 15 minutes. Anyone else using the app within the range distance of your Bluetooth signal exchanges the anonymous tokens and then stores the updated token (the one that changes every 15 minutes) for two weeks. If you test positive for Covid-19, you enter the test result code in your app. This way, all the phones which stored the anonymized tokens from your phone because you were in proximity over the last two weeks would then also be alerted to self-isolate.

This period of self-isolation is effectively like a house arrest, on top of the lockdown we were already effectively under. That positive Covid-19 test added a layer of complexity to living. Our date for ‘release’ was the 28th December 2020. This date assumes you all come out well on the other side of the isolation period and recover. But as with many parameters in this unknown territory of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s not that simple. It still took a few more days, but recover we did, eventually.

My conclusion is that technology in itself is really useful in dealing with modern life challenges. But with Covid-19, there is still a lack of knowledge in how to deal with it effectively. That lack of knowledge means you can only use technology to the extent that you can measure what you know. But there is still too much unknown for technology to be completely effective. Let’s hope that 2021 brings us more than just the vaccine. We need to understand how to deal with the virus better too, if we happen to catch it. And then we can overcome the fear of that unknown.

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