Going Viral: Seeing Possibilities Amidst the Covid-19 Pandemic

By: Bienvenido Somera, Jr., Ma.Sophia Editha Cruz-Abrenica and Glaiza Narvacan
Over the last few months, we have witnessed how the coronavirus pandemic brought global society to an indefinite pause, subjecting people from all walks of life to extraordinary, at times drastic, lifestyle changes. With vaccines still under development, the end of the pandemic, albeit eventual, is not yet in sight. But while its effects have been mostly bad and ugly, it cannot be denied that some good have resulted from the changes brought about by this international health crisis. Whether some of these changes will be permanent is something we have yet to see in the pandemic’s aftermath.  In the meantime, and while we have some time in our hands, we can weigh in on what we may want to take with us, and what we can hope or expect to see in a post-pandemic world.
The good in the bad and the ugly

          Positive impact on the environment. Putting cities on lockdown and thus, dramatically reducing travel and industrial output, has definitely made a positive impact on our planet. Visible proof of clearer skies during the day and night have been seen all over the world1  and evidence of reduced carbon emissions and heat-trapping gases have been recorded.2  One example is in China, where the novel coronavirus first wreaked havoc: the industrial output in the country is estimated to have dropped by 15% to 40%, which resulted to “a decrease in carbon emissions of about 25% over a four-week period and a 37% decline in nitrous oxide levels”  - this is only a fraction of what is happening on a global scale, and although it is said to be “still not aggressive enough to sufficiently reduce emissions as much as scientists say is needed”4  , we are at least getting a picture of what can happen if we collectively decrease (or eliminate) some of our destructive activities. Although it is quite disconcerting that the scale of our environmental problem had to be revealed under grim circumstances such as these, we can hope that this event leads to bigger policy changes aimed to protect and clean up the environment in the future. 
          Work flexibility. Mandatory social distancing and strict quarantining has forced many companies, some for the first time, to put in place a work-from-home arrangement for their employees. While most are accepting of this necessary measure, many are not very keen on the compulsory set-up, with some saying that it has practically eradicated work-life-balance .5 Be that as it may, the situation has definitely provided an opportunity for workers and employers to see that a more flexible working arrangement is possible, and that daily face time in the office may not be necessary. Working at home also eliminated the wasted hours spent in travelling to work. For places like Manila for instance, where the daily commute is often described as hellish6 , a sudden break from the two to six-hour travel is a welcome change for many. Zero hours of travelling could be translated to more hours of sleep (that is, if you’re not losing sleep because of streaming video shows) and possibly a more relaxed mind and body, that may lead to more efficiency at work and a healthier life. More time at home also means more time to spend with family and loved ones and perhaps, extra time to pursue hobbies and interests that have long been put aside. Considering the positives, it may be beneficial, or even desired, that some work-from-home arrangements or variations of the current set up, be retained even after the present crisis. This may even lead to other business advantages, such as physical offices being repurposed for other uses or abandoned altogether, with resultant savings in maintenance and/or rental fees. 
          Open-access and collaborations. In the collective desire to fast track the development of technologies, treatments and vaccines against Covid-19, sharing of information is imperative. Recently, an initiative called the “Open COVID Pledge” was developed by a group of scientists, lawyers, and entrepreneurs to achieve just that. The pledge aims to grant the public free and temporary access to intellectual property rights, thus removing obstacles to dissemination of knowledge and invention that may be used to solve or at least minimize the impact of the Covid-19 crisis.7   Following the call for open sharing, multinational technology companies Intel Corporation and IBM are now offering free access to their vast intellectual property portfolio .8 For IBM, their pledge covers a considerable number of IBM artificial intelligence patents as well as dozens of active U.S. patents in the general area of biological viruses.9  Aside from knowledge-sharing, companies, even fierce competitors, are now joining forces. In what has been called an “unprecedented collaboration”, pharmaceutical giants are combining their resources to produce an adjuvant vaccine against Covid-19, which they aim to produce by the end of 2021.10  While admittedly, the circumstance that took to bring about this international teamwork is not ideal and out of the ordinary, it still brought to light that large-scale collaborations, even among competitors, can be worked out. Hopefully, these approaches can be used to solve other global issues in the future, such that curing cancer and solving world hunger or global warming can be the next targets.   
          Cooperation and altruism. Whether it be by billionaires11  or people who do not have much12 , we are continuously seeing acts of charity being done all over the world in response to the pandemic. Donation drives and programs to help the vulnerable population, the less fortunate and front-liners are commonplace. Cooperation between the government and the civilian population has been taking place as well, bringing out nationalistic tendencies even among the usually apathetic. Once again, we are able to see that humanity has an immense capacity to be kind to one another and to cooperate and participate in times of difficult situations. It is certainly beautiful to see that these kindnesses and level of participation are maintained, or at least do not become scarce once the crisis subsides. 
          Spotlight on healthcare and research. Right from the very beginning, the medical practitioners have naturally been at the forefront of our fight with the deadly disease. Truly, they deserve recognition and gratitude, not only for using their expertise for bringing the afflicted back to health, but for making the most of what they’ve been armed with, (which is not much to say the least), in a battle that not even the wealthiest countries seem to be ready for13 , and in the process, valiantly risking their lives. To be sure, this has exposed to us our collective unpreparedness for dealing with crises of this scale, regretfully, despite warnings from scientists for years14 . Seeing much of Europe, UK and the United States somehow brought to their knees due to the pandemic reveals that gaps in the healthcare system are not exclusive to developing countries, and everyone should have paid and should be paying more attention. Nevertheless, one good thing to take away from this experience is that by the time we get out of this rut, we will have been more aware of the necessity for a more robust healthcare system and scientific research and we will (hopefully) know where our priorities should lie during the next round of decision-making. 
Towards a (post-pandemic) world of possibilities
          “Necessity is the mother of invention” – an old proverb that is still very true and should ring even truer during and after this pandemic. As the coronavirus disease crisis has the potential to have lasting changes in our lives, with some experts saying that the disease is here to stay15 , there is a need to develop new technologies aside from vaccines and cures, or at least expand the use of existing ones to protect us from this disease (and other contagious diseases in general), and more importantly, prevent the re-emergence of a pandemic. 
          Hands-free systems. Given that there is no known cure for Covid-19 as of date16 , health advisories have focused on prevention, which included frequent handwashing or sanitizing. While we can do what we can to follow this advice as best we could, it certainly would not hurt if there are additional measures that will help us avoid touching germ-prone areas in the first place. For one, this can be done through hands-free systems. Automatic doors, such as those that open through infrared technology can be made more common in public places and offices, for instance. Devices that can be used to avoid touching public door handles can be made available as well.17  Automatic soap dispensers and hands-free faucets and flush systems should become the norm in the coming days.  Hands-free technology can also be applied to public elevators and innovators may find a way to rid of the need to push buttons, such as by turning our ubiquitous cellphones into our own personal remote controllers. For cash management situations wherein a wireless transaction is not an option, perhaps an external secure device specific to a person may be developed for use in ATM transactions so that touching of the machine is avoided.  No-touch screens similar to those used by Tom Cruise in the movie Minority Report needs to be developed and deployed fast.18 
          Technologies allowing less human participation/contact. While avoiding human contact in its entirety is certainly not ideal, there are situations when doing so is beneficial and should be encouraged. For instance in hazardous areas such as contaminated hospital rooms, to eliminate the risk of persons contracting diseases, human presence can be reduced or avoided altogether, by the use of robotics. Nowadays, self-driving machines that can disinfect rooms are available19/sup>  as well as drones that can be utilized to sanitize public areas20  - use of these technologies can be expanded. Another example is unnecessary person-to-person contact in supermarkets which can be lessened by using self-check-out counters. Another technology that should be promoted for wider use, especially in the context of a pandemic, is the telehealth system. Telehealth is defined as the use of digital information and communication technologies to remotely access healthcare services 21. This does not only provide convenience for the user who does not need to travel to the clinics or hospitals for minor consultations, it may also aid in unburdening medical facilities and personnel and will also help prevent hospital-acquired illnesses. 
          Anti-viral and antibacterial materials. It is common to see cleaning products that are labeled “antibacterial” and/or “antiviral” nowadays. Even food storage containers infused with antimicrobial properties using nano-silver technology have already been made available22 . In the future, innovators can perhaps explore introducing antibacterial and antiviral properties to more items for everyday use. For instance, since antibacterial clothing has already been explored and made available, antiviral materials may be developed next, for use primarily by health workers and eventually by the general public. 
The expenses for mass producing modern technologies and widening their use is obviously a concern, but as we have seen in cellphones, reducing costs in making modern technology more available is not impossible.  

The world as we know it may be forever changed by this pandemic, and it is natural to feel rattled and uncertain. No one knows for sure what awaits us at the end of this crisis.  However, we may take comfort in knowing that it will end, one way or another. For now, we can focus on making the most out of this seemingly bleak situation and rather than seeing inconveniences, see the opportunities that it brings.

[1] See https://www.discovery.com/nature/clear-skies-during-lockdown-is-a-pandemic-upside. Last accessed 28 April 2020
[2] See https://news.umich.edu/environmental-impacts-of-the-pandemic-u-m-experts-can-discuss/. Last accessed 28 April 2020
[3] Id.
[4] See https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-clear-skies-earth-day-21bf6f48-347d-4f2b-982f-01f2dbc68f48.html?stream=top. Last accessed 28 April 2020
[5] See https://energynow.ca/2020/04/three-hours-longer-the-pandemic-workday-has-obliterated-work-life-balance/. Last accessed 28 April 2020
[6] See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/08/manilas-commutes-from-hell-a-photo-essay. Last accessed 28 April 2020
[7] See https://creativecommons.org/2020/04/07/open-covid-pledge-removing-obstacles-to-sharing-ip-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/ Last accessed 28 April 2020
[8] See https://blogs.intel.com/csr/2020/04/open-covid-pledge/#gs.4prd9m and https://www.ibm.com/blogs/research/2020/04/ibm-patent-portfolio-access-combat-covid-19/ Last accessed 28 April 2020
[9] See https://www.ibm.com/blogs/research/2020/04/ibm-patent-portfolio-access-combat-covid-19/ Last accessed 28 April 2020
[10] See https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/14/gsk-ceo-covid-19-vaccine-with-sanofi-is-unprecedented-collaboration.html. Last accessed 28 April 2020
[11] See https://www.forbes.com/sites/hayleycuccinello/2020/04/15/jack-dorsey-bill-gates-and-at-least-75-other-billionaires-donating-to-pandemic-relief/#56a1e6ae21bd Last accessed 28 April 2020
[12] See https://www.facebook.com/KuhaMosaABSCBN/posts/694763897935422 Last accessed 03 May 2020.
[13] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/the-us-health-system-is-showing-why-its-not-ready-for-a-coronavirus-pandemic/2020/03/04/7c307bb4-5d61-11ea-b29b-9db42f7803a7_story.html and https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/03/coronavirus-italy-spain-uk-health-services-struggle-to-cope.html. Last accessed 28 April 2020
[14] See https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/experts-warned-pandemic-decades-ago-why-not-ready-for-coronavirus/. Last accessed 28 April 2020
[15] See https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-outbreak-seasonality-not-disappear-2020-2. Last accessed 28 April 2020
[16] See https://www.livescience.com/can-coronavirus-be-cured.html. Last accessed on 28 April 2020
[17] See https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-52008745. Last accessed on 28 April 2020
[18] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJqbivkm0Ms. Last accessed on 03 May 2020
[19] See https://www.bbc.com/news/business-51914722. Last accessed on 28 April 2020
[20] See https://www.msn.com/en-us/health/video/robots-and-drones-used-to-disinfect-coronavirus-infected-areas-of-china/vi-BB10x22l. Last accessed on 28 April 2020
[21] See https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/telehealth/art-20044878/. Last accessed 28 April 2020
[22] See https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2018/en/c7en01043e#!divAbstract. Last accessed 28 April 2020