How Technology Can Save Us from Coronavirus
Roopinder Tara posted on March 17, 2020 |
From microscopes to webinars, tech can keep us informed, apart and healthy.
What the Coronavirus looks like—sort of. The growths that fringe the Coronavirus give the COVID-19 virus its popular name. While the intricate and regular geometry is displayed in all its deadly glory, the color is not to be believed. Viruses are smaller than the wavelengths of visible light so color, as we know it, does not exist at their scale.
What the Coronavirus looks like—sort of. The growths that fringe the Coronavirus give the COVID-19 virus its popular name. While the intricate and regular geometry is displayed in all its deadly glory, the color is not to be believed. Viruses are smaller than the wavelengths of visible light so color, as we know it, does not exist at their scale.
The last pandemic that almost brought the world to its knees happened during World War I. The viruses of the 1918 Spanish Flu, named for a country that had little to do with it, killed more people (50 to 100 million) than bullets did. But a hundred years ago, we didn't know about viruses. We had no idea that being packed together in the trenches of war or the close quarters of cities would cause a contagion to spread like a wildfire.

Before the discovery of cells (blood, cancer, etc.) and microorganisms (parasites, bacteria, viruses, prions, etc.), it was easy enough for people packed together to spread the disease to each other without ever knowing how. The bubonic plague, or Black Death—a bacterial infection named for the dark buboes that caused in its victims—couldn’t have spread without people being packed together under unsanitary conditions that harbored rats, the fleas on the rats, and the bacteria in the fleas. The Industrial Revolution didn’t help, needing workers who crowded into cities.

Early Technology

In the 19th century, Louis Pasteur had discovered germs as the culprit of disease. And in the century before that, Antoine van Leeuwenhoek discovered the “little animals” later determined to be bacteria. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that viruses were determined to be particles, rather than a fluid. It wasn’t until 1931, when the electron microscope revealed the deadly beauty of the virus organisms, that we clearly saw what caused flus and the diseases caused by coronaviruses.

A lot has changed since then. We are much better informed of what causes diseases, how they spread and how to battle them. We’ve also have had a proliferation of technologies that help us live, work and play while apart so we don’t spread disease to each other.

The Internet

Office workers told to stay home rather than go to work and risk infecting others didn’t even bat an eye. Sure, we can do that, they replied. Overnight, downtowns became bare of businessmen. Many office workers had been developing some sort of a workspace at home, anywhere from the kitchen table to a fully-equipped office, with a laptop that goes back and forth. Going all the way, to stop going to the office altogether, was not that much of a stretch. When the boss requests actual face time, well, we can use what the kids use: the Apple FaceTime app. For a more professional application, there’s cameras and microphones built into every business laptop and an on-camera option in most collaborative work applications (e.g. Slack, Microsoft’s Teams, Zoom, etc.).

Webinars


Click to watch a middle seat passenger sneezes, which is shown spreading to other seats in a CFD simulation. (Picture courtesy of ANSYS video.)
Click to watch a middle seat passenger sneezes, which is shown spreading to other seats in a CFD simulation. (Picture courtesy of ANSYS video.) 

Trade Shows and Conferences Take a Hit

The technology of powered flight that made it easy to connect our cities was good news—until it wasn’t. The tightly packed conditions in a flight coupled with recirculating cabin air make ocean-crossing jetliners into flying Petri dishes.

These are often business travelers, who might often deal with business transactions between the U.S. and China. A survey of almost 20,000 freelance workers found that 57% of them are avoiding international travel as a result of the virus and only 29% were avoiding domestic flights. As expected, China is the most affected, with 77% of those surveyed saying they would not go there. China suffered from more lack of trust, avoided by 73%, after being vilified after two giant Princess cruise ships were found to have hundreds of passengers with symptoms of the coronavirus and dozens actually coming down with the infection.

While businesses can easily replace meetings with teleconferences—with or without a camera feed—it’s harder to replace trade shows and conferences, which are falling like dominoes since the outbreak of the coronavirus. See Coronavirus Is Killing Conferences.

Again, it’s the Internet and the technology that the Internet fosters to the rescue. Companies that were depending on trade shows to launch products and make announcements have rediscovered webinars as the next best thing. A recent survey found 54% of those involved with engineering supply chains had events they were hoping to attend cancelled. 42% of them said they would use funds earmarked for attending and exhibiting the events for digital advertising and content creation.

Webinars

Webinars, a portmanteau of “web” and “seminars,” have been around since the mid-1980s. The first rendition of a webinar was really little more than text chatting called IRC, or Internet Relay Chat. In 1995, screen sharing was added. In May of 1996, PlaceWare by Xerox PARC allowed users to make a live presentation. In 1999, WebEx made webinars popular. Engineering.com uses GoToWebinar, similar to WebEx. [Full disclosure, engineering.com conducts a lot of webinars as part of its business].

For anyone not familiar with webinars by now (there might be dozens of you), think of a teleconference except one person is talking to many. Everybody is online. If you are going to substitute webinars for a conference, the advantages of webinars are:

  1. Webinars are much easier to plan for.
  2. There is no booth to deliver, set up or tear down.
  3. They are quick to initiate (though you should allow adequate time to promote the webinar).
  4. Cost of lead acquisitions can be substantially lower.
  5. You can have more time with a webinar attendee than a conference attendee.

A webinar can be just like giving a live presentation, more or less. You can not only share your screen, you can share your face, a white-board, or even switch presenters. Attendees can raise their hand to ask questions, enter a question in the chat box and also chat with the presenters. Most webinar applications allow for surveying the audience and sharing the results of the survey.

Recommended For You