• Our digital infrastructure needs strengthening to deal with the impact of COVID-19 and future public health crises;
  • Better integration of Artificial Intelligence in to the public health response should be a priority;
  • Analysis of big data relating to citizens' movement, disease transmission patters and health monitoring could be used to aid prevention measures.

In recent years, the world has witnessed the rise of SARS, Zika virus, Ebola and now COVID-19. Epidemics are a rising threat.

Cities across the world have made infrastructure innovation a priority to safeguard their physical systems so they can stay robust and antifragile during natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunami and hurricanes. But pandemics have shown that these methods aren’t enough when it comes to ensuring connectivity and accessing our society during biological disasters.

The primary challenge now, at the time of this crisis, is to integrate and streamline digital infrastructure at various stages of the public health response, particularly in the context of epidemic forecasting and decision-making. In the 17 years since SARS, a new age digital era has emerged; artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT) could be instrumental in keeping this new virus within reasonable limits.

Pressure on digital infrastructure

Governments are now relying on ubiquitous instruments (sensors) and powerful algorithms instead of flesh-and-blood spooks. In the war against COVID-19, several governments have implemented these new surveillance tools.

Maps of the world show how the decrease in the transportation of people has drastically reduced carbon emissions across different countries, but what’s the case for emissions from digital technologies? Will the volume of people working from home or using digital devices in quarantine cause an increase in emissions from other sources? What is being done by the large cloud-providers to address the capacity issue?

Using big data to fight pandemics
Using big data to fight pandemics

Predicting and modelling outbreaks

In the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, we are witnessing three major occurrences across the globe:

1. Wider acceptance of online services;

2. A humongous requirement for internet services for conventional industries;

3. Boosted connectivity among diverse types of industries.

These three data streams provide important, real-time data about travel patterns that spread disease and longitudinal alterations in populations at risk, which until recently have been very difficult to quantify on schedules related to a fast-moving pandemic. With an exponential rise in mobility and growing global connectivity, this information will be critical to planning surveillance and containment strategies.

Some researchers and private entities along with their respective state governments are developing a digital platform, HealthMap, which visually represents the disease outbreaks according to location, time and the type of contagious virus, bacterial disease that is being carried while entering into the city.

Digital infrastructure plays a pivotal role in predicting and modelling outbreaks. Take AI-supported services for a lung CT scan: the AI is premeditated to quickly detect lesions of likely coronavirus pneumonia; to measure its volume, shape and density; and to compare changes of multiple lung lesions from the image. This provides a quantitative report to assist doctors in making fast judgements and thus helps expedite the health evaluation of patients.

How to create real-time epidemic situation awareness
How to create real-time epidemic situation awareness

Mapping citizens

Governments across the globe are gradually developing the digital infrastructure and engineering capabilities to face the pandemic and alleviate the spread of COVID-19 through community-driven contact-tracing technologies. These enable citizens to react assertively and promptly to pandemic diseases with a set of digital tools to help spread timely and precise information to its citizens.

Many governments are encouraging private companies to develop innovative tools that make use of hundreds of millions of facial recognition cameras and people reporting their body temperature and medical condition. Through this authorities can quickly identify suspected coronavirus transporters and identify anyone with whom they have come into contact. An array of mobile apps warns citizens about their proximity to infected patients.

Roadmap for a better future

The virus has provided a new start for digital infrastructure development. Using the cloud, big data and AI applications creates room for industries to develop and build new business models that help citizens understand the severity of pandemic disease and ensure preventive measures.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

A coalition of stakeholders (private and governmental) are supporting pharmaceutical enterprises with millions in funding to find a vaccine for the virus. To modernize, upgrade and update our digital infrastructure and to tackle this and future pandemics, different financial models will evolve such as Public-Private Partnership and consumption/outcome-based models to alleviate the financial crisis during the development phase.

It is now the moment for countries to fast-track the construction of new digital infrastructure, such as IoT along with AI, in addition to the hastening of vital projects and major infrastructure construction that’s already included in countries’ financial stimulus plans.