SARS-CoV-2 vs. technology

As a Belgian with Dutch roots who has been living in Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK on and off for over 20 years now, I’ve had the chance to observe and experience from close by how those three have handled this crisis from the first victim reported to where we are now. I’ve always thought that the Netherlands and Great-Britain were superior crisis managers, but it turns out Belgium — even with its political differences between the poorer French-speaking south and the richer Dutch-speaking north — are handling the epidemic better.

Poor little Belgium’s federal government was quick to organise a partial lockdown, converting the advice of Flemish scientists — of whom a considerable number belongs to the world’s top virologists — into practice and using as much technology as possible. Indeed, technology has been crucial across the globe in handling this pandemic. Here are a few examples:

  • European virologists and epidemiologists have been in “close contact” with each other via conference and video calls so they can quickly learn from each other’s experiences. Especially Chinese and Italian experts have been sharing their knowledge and experience with how the virus acts and reacts to measures taken.
  • Paul Stoffels, MD and Vice Chairman of the Executive Committee and Chief Scientific Officer at Johnson & Johnson who got his degree at my alma mater, the University of Antwerp, explained that Janssen Farmaceutica, the Flemish subsidiary, will soon be working on a SARS-CoV–2 vaccine. They have been adjusting their R&D lab’s equipment so it will be able to produce many millions of vaccines once the biological key to preventing it from overwhelming our immune system has been found. Dr. Stoffels explained he and other labs like J&J’s will have to make billions of vaccines. He expects MD’s can start administering it in one to one and half years from now. That, he explained, is much sooner than it would have taken a few years ago.
  • On the individual’s life, technology has a big impact in these trying times. We’re asked to telework as much as we can. That’s not a problem if your Internet connection is fast and the operator doesn’t squeeze your connection speed as the number of simultaneous users grow. In some countries, people have had trouble with dropped connections because of the capacity of the provider’s network and the gateways and routings to other providers’ networks.
  • Supply chains, especially food supply chains, have been under stress as a result of the massive hoarding reflex by people who don’t understand this isn’t a war situation with a high risk of scarcity. Luckily, the digital systems that manage those supply chains have proven to be rather robust so far.
  • A hospital network in Antwerp has developed an online form-based app that people, who have symptoms they think could be related to Covid–19, can fill in to receive a preliminary diagnosis and advice. This helps keep the pressure on hospitals and GP’s in triage centres manageable.

In the battle against the virus, technology is helping us in ways we could only imagine. Even the criticised social media have proven to be somewhat useful — especially to enable isolated people to keep in touch with others. Some people and organisations, though, can’t resist to spread dangerous fake news and advice about Covid–19, although companies like Facebook have promised to ban ads and commercial listings for masks, hand sanitiser, etc. Facebook has even launched an information initiative, with the latest genuine news and information.

Others, however, see this worldwide catastrophe as a means to scam people. For example, an app has been promoted that disguises itself as a version of the “corona live” application which provides data from the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker of infection rates and deaths. In reality, the link points to a server apparently located in Libya. The app itself can watch you through your smartphone camera, listen to you through its microphone or pilfer all your text messages (Source: Forbes).