Business unusual: Time for tech to move fast and fix things

The tech world has the ingenuity, resources, imagination and drive to tackle the new challenges brought by COVID-19.

Coronatech Reuters
Researchers at the Microbiology Research Facility work with coronavirus samples at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US March 19, 2020 [Craig Lassig/Reuters]

COVID-19 has changed the world, creased the social fabric, upended business, and threatened supply chains. People are fearful and hunkering down at home. Now, perhaps more than ever, is the time for tech to shine and help things get back to normal and to prepare for a more successful, healthier and safer future. 

The rapid spread of the coronavirus has thrown into disarray our vision of a connected digital world poised to solve any crisis through global communication and rapid response. We must acknowledge that despite the incredible advances our society has made as a result of technology, we nevertheless failed to spot the patterns of this pandemic before they spread. How humbling and disorienting. 

The speed of rapid technological growth represented by Moore’s Law pales in comparison to the exponential growth of today’s invisible microscopic killer. After decades of speedy, shimmering progress, technology missed a lethal threat that has rattled lives, businesses and governments across the globe, and poses a significant threat to humanity. 

Tragically, thousands of people have died and many more may follow. The pressure on hospitals and medical providers is immense. The pain of losing loved ones will scar the lives of those left behind. This is not what we expected when we rang in the New Year of 2020. 

Governments are struggling to respond. China, Italy, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Australia, among others, have been criticised by some for being too strict. Great Britain is being criticised by some for being too lax. Spain is being criticised for stepping up too late. No one knows the truth about how Iran has been affected, though things sound dire. The United States is watching and learning and calibrating the response daily. 

Through incredible advances in technology and industry we have been successful in shrinking and shaping our world to suit our needs. So many around the globe are able to enjoy any food in any season and drink fresh water or a plethora of beverages on demand. Many are able to travel the globe at a moment’s notice. We communicate across hemispheres at the swipe of a screen. We regard good health as a human right. We consume oil, gas, electricity and entertainment without a moment’s consideration. 

For those among us who are fortunate to enjoy all of those privileges, much of it may be about to change. The future starts here. And it has the potential to look a bit like the past. Growing up, we found it a bit hard to relate when we heard of people from our parents’ generation postponing family gatherings and leaving the city in the summer to escape the polio epidemic that terrified Americans in the 1950s as surely as the threat of nuclear war terrified them in the 1960s. For our children, these concepts are even more foreign. 

When this crisis is over, it will be hard for some to adjust to the new reality that despite what we think, the world is not in our control. Fear and uncertainty are nipping at our heels. 

Businesses, schools, colleges and sports arenas have closed around the world. Millions of people are confined to their homes to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Millions of people will temporarily stop earning an income and countless businesses around the world may collapse. The medical infrastructures of many countries around the world are preparing for an influx of people who will require intensive care in hospitals, placing a huge burden on the medical system, equipment, drugs, doctors, nurses and other medical professionals. 

To ensure we get back on track, and stay on the track as much as possible, there is now an urgent need for innovation. Technology can help us overcome many of the problems resulting from the crisis. The switch to digital will create a mass of vulnerabilities and challenges. Destructive cyber-jackals will swoop in even as our communities circle their digital wagons to protect themselves. 

This worldwide crisis presents the greatest challenge yet faced by digital technology. This new struggle against an invisible threat will result in the creation of new areas of business activity. Some that exist already will expand dramatically: digital medicine; artificial intelligence-powered diagnostics; remote social and business networking; online freight and logistics; one-click cybersecurity and payment systems for small businesses; 3-D printing for vital medical equipment; training for distance learning – just to name a few. Other entirely new industries will appear. 

Together we must plan for future pandemics because this story is just beginning. Society urgently needs mass testing capabilities, either through the worldwide licensing of successful technology that proves itself during this crisis, or the development of new, reliable and fast methods. We need technological solutions based on what we learn from this emergency. 

We must look inward and ask ourselves the tough questions: could we have tracked the spread of the virus earlier? How do we track data more efficiently while still respecting privacy and civil liberties? Is that really possible, or must we sacrifice some privacy and liberty for the greater good of humanity? Can we deploy new technology so that epidemiologists forecast more accurately and physicians treat more effectively? What could we have done better? 

At this pivotal moment of human history much may change. Entrepreneurs are uniquely skilled to provide fast, effective, efficient solutions to some of our greatest challenges. The tech world has the ingenuity, resources, imagination and drive to tackle these new challenges. 

Humanity has been blessed with vast talent and skill including and, perhaps especially, among the world of science and technology. 

So to those talented folks, we say that it is time to move fast and help us fix things. The future can be bright if we work together, quickly, efficiently, and as partners for all of humanity. 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.