In November 2018, purely out of my keen interest in Blockchain and a little influence from my daughter's MUN (Model United Nations) preparation in WHO committee, I had written an article, ‘Unleashing Blockchain for cross-border surveillance & reporting of Communicable Diseases.' It was pure research at that point and seemed like a perfect use case for Blockchain. Today this COVID-19 crisis suddenly makes me wonder, that if we had a blockchain based real time reporting of Communicable Diseases, maybe we could have avoided a pandemic?
Biggest challenges for Communicable Diseases
There are two major challenges with communicable diseases.
1) First, in today's globalized world, communicable diseases are extremely hard to contain. They spread like wildfire and moves across political and geographical boundaries at ease, infecting people across countries.
2) Secondly, there is a huge social stigma around Communicable Diseases even today. The man by nature is a social animal and the idea of being separated from fellow human beings is scary to all. So there is a tendency to hide. This tendency is further aggravated by the fact that most people do not respect privacy. Maintaining privacy in case of sharing information about communicable diseases is of utmost importance.
How did COVID 19 start, spread and then become a pandemic?
While there are various opinions about this matter and many conspiracy theories are floating around, lets for now just consider the proven cause. The disease started from the wet markets of Wuhan, China, where live and dead animals and birds are sold daily. The virus most likely has originated from Bats, but since bats are not sold in that market, the scientists think that the bat must have bitten a bird or animal that got sold in the Wuhan wet market.
This much we have seen many a times when any new disease hit us. But then what's different with this? How has this virus brought the world to a standstill? We have seen it's more dangerous cousins, MARS, SARS etc., but they didn't bring the world to a standstill. Then why Covid 19? The difference is that it's very highly contagious, much more than its close cousins. So when one person got infected, he started infecting many in a day and each one of them infected that many and very soon there were thousands of people in Wuhan who were infected.
Since the symptoms are typically like simple flu, people continued to travel and China missed sending the warning to the rest of the world and did not restrict travel to and fro. So, international travelers kept on coming to China and vice versa. More than a month went by before the world woke up to realize that this is a serious threat and by then the disease has already spread to many countries like Italy, Spain, UK, US, Iran and a few others too.
And then while the news of Wuhan epidemic, as well as the challenges in the other countries came out, travel was not restricted. It took a couple of more weeks for the travel restrictions to start and by then the virus has travelled to 20 odd countries. Now the world really wakes up and every country starts taking measures to do lockdown by restricting travel and also taking various other measures to reduce spreading of the virus within the country. But by then it's a pandemic! The entire world gets introduced to a very different challenge, business suffers, stock market tanks across the world, many people lose their jobs, not to speak of the enormous loss of life and pressure on the healthcare system of all affected countries.
Could Blockchain have helped the situation?
As we all know, with Blockchain we can share any transaction/information, real time, between relevant parties present as nodes in the chain, in a secure and immutable fashion. In this case, had there been a blockchain where WHO, Health Ministry of each country and may be even relevant nodal hospitals of each country, were connected, sharing real time information, about any new communicable disease, then the world might have woken up much earlier.
We might have seen travel restrictions given sooner, quarantining policies set sooner and social distancing implemented faster. And may be fewer countries would have got impacted.
What every country is doing now fighting this pandemic, would have been restricted to fewer countries and on a much smaller scale. The usage of a Blockchain to share the information early on might have saved the world a lot of pain.
The top five advantages of Blockchain technology are:
- Greater transparency
- Enhanced security
- Improved traceability
- Increased efficiency and speed
- Reduced cost
Aren't they all supremely important for reporting cross-border Communicable Disease cases?
The world had not seen anything like this Covid 19 pandemic before. Today we need to take a hard look at the reporting infrastructure available for communicable diseases, both technology and regulations and improve upon that, such that we do not need to face another pandemic like this in the future.
But of course Blockchain, in this case, like any technology is not a solution, it's just an enabler. An enabler that would ensure the security and efficiency needed for sharing something so sensitive. Finally, it would depend on the goodwill of people and governments.
Wish we come out of this crisis soon and as unscathed as possible!