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Coronavirus Would Be Worse Without the Web

Coronavirus Would Be Worse Without the Web

Sunday, 9 February, 2020 - 07:15

For all the bashing directed at technology nowadays, it is noteworthy that so far the internet has put on an impressive performance when it comes to the coronavirus.

Most of all, the internet has aided and enforced transparency. In early December, it seems, local governments in China sought to cover up evidence of a possible spreading pandemic. But once the word got out on the internet, the cover-up stopped almost immediately. The central government stepped in aggressively to ensure a quarantine and many other active countermeasures. Whether or not those were the right policy responses, the elimination of the cover-up was a necessary step in limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

Scientific information about the coronavirus has spread around the world remarkably quickly, mostly because of the internet. The virus has been identified, sequenced, and tracked online, and researchers around the world are working on possible fixes. The possibility that the failed ebola drug remdesivir may help protect against the virus is now well known and the drug is being deployed. The notion of using an HIV cocktail plus some anti-flu drugs against the coronavirus also has been publicized online. The final word on those potential fixes is not yet in, but the internet accelerates the spread of knowledge, along with its application.

Researchers from India prematurely published a claim that the coronavirus resembles in some critical ways the HIV virus, and their presentation hinted at the possibility something sinister was going on. The online scientific community leaped into action, however, and very quickly the theory was struck down and a retraction came almost immediately. I saw this whole process unfold on my Twitter feed in less than a day.

And if the virus undergoes significant mutations, which could complicate public health responses, that too will be disseminated online almost immediately.

It cannot be said that there are no down sides to the rapid spread of information. For instance, the idea of buying up masks seems to have spread through the internet, and such masks are easy to order online, or at least they were before the supply ran out. Panic-buying of masks may now make it harder for hospitals and health-care professionals to get the masks they need. But while the internet has inflamed some problems, the dominant response has been one of reasoned haste.

Within China, much of the virus response has been coordinated using the internet. For instance, many Chinese hospitals need both medical supplies and donations. A group of students from Wuhan University school of computer science and engineering set up a platform to allow hospitals to publicize what they need and to bring donors and hospitals together. The service was up and running within 40 hours, and hospitals now have much greater access to increasingly scarce supplies.

Another Chinese site, NJU FactCheck, is combating misinformation and fact-checking the claims of public figures concerning the coronavirus. On Twitter, public-health researcher Helen Branswell is one very good source of current and evidence-based information in English.

More generally, so much of the Chinese adaptation to the virus has involved the internet and online activity. Many more people are telecommuting, supply chains are being monitored from greater distances, and telemedicine may be on the verge of making a huge leap, at least in China. If you were wondering what might spur drone delivery and self-driving vehicles, perhaps the coronavirus will play a significant role, as human-to-human contact in China becomes something to be avoided. Wearables to monitor health may also take big steps forward, again out of necessity.

There is a possible dark side here as well. For instance, a “digital quarantine” is keeping many Chinese, especially from Wuhan, within proscribed regions. The computerized systems that track identity cards, which are used to take trains and buses and to register in hotels, have been used to corral people from Wuhan who have broken the quarantine. It is easy enough to imagine future extensions of those techniques, for instance by shutting down payments and ride-sharing technologies, so they do not operate outside of the quarantine zones. Opinions will vary as to whether those measures are justified.

Still, no matter what your net assessment of the positives and negatives here, one thing is clear: It is better to face this public health emergency with the internet than without it. Keep that in mind the next time you hear someone wax nostalgic about the good old days before the internet.


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