😷 Pandemic, Panic, Patients, Patience / Humans + Tech - #20

Coronavirus & Technology - The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly


This is issue #20. The biggest news of 2020 so far is the Coronavirus and Covid-19 which is now officially a pandemic [Time].

Who would have predicted that—when just three days into this year, we were seriously worried about the beginning of World War III [CNN], after the US took out Qasem Soleimani. That seems like a very distant memory now, although it’s just over two months ago.

This week has been particularly chaotic worldwide due to the coronavirus, so I’m going to dedicate this newsletter to the coronavirus – with a technology perspective.

Technology is both a blessing and a curse. The difference only lies in how we use it.

In Issue #18 of this newsletter, I shared an article that said that the coronavirus is the first true social-media “infodemic” [MIT Technology Review]. We are still coming to grips with what this entails and how it plays out.

📰 “Breaking News” is literally breaking the news

I’m now numb to the words “Breaking News.”

It used to mean ‘drop-everything-you-are-doing-and-take-notice-of-this’ news. Now, in the attention economy of our digital world, where the currency is the likes, shares, clicks, and the social clout our posts generate, it is used so often that it’s lost all meaning. It has become the digital equivalent of crying wolf.

I haven’t wrapped my head around why humans love to be the bearer of bad/breaking news. I guess it comes from our not-so-distant human past when we had to warn our tribes of any impending danger. However, a false alarm within your small tribe in those days did not wreak havoc at the scale it does in the age of social media and a worldwide audience.

Today, people are so anxious to be the first to disclose any news to their audiences, they rarely check the authenticity of information before sharing. Often, along with the infamous “sent as received”—absolving the sender of all responsibility—the default disclaimer in our information sharing economy. And unfortunately, there are those who intentionally spread misinformation to create chaos and panic. We need to be wary of both.

Going viral online is often a badge of honour, but sometimes it can be as deadly as a natural viral epidemic.

💊 Fake virus remedies go viral online

🥛During the initial outbreak of the coronavirus, drinking bleach to cure Covid-19 [ScienceAlert] went viral on social media. Online, it’s known as “Miracle Mineral Solution” or MMS. MMS has been touted as a miracle cure for many other diseases for over a decade. YouTube recently started banning all videos and ads for MMS [Insider]. For the record, bleach is good at disinfecting surfaces. It doesn’t work when ingested and can cause severe liver damage and/or very low blood pressure.

👃Later, other solutions like snorting cocaine made the rounds in France. A fake breaking news image with the headline, “Cocaine cures coronavirus” was generated by a user on a website that provides such a service. The image went viral [Politifact] in France and even prompted a tweet from France’s health ministry warning against it.

Translation: “No, cocaine does NOT protect against COVID-19. It is an addictive drug that causes serious side effects and is harmful to people’s health.”

🥃Recently, 44 people in Iran died from alcohol poisoning and over 200 were hospitalized after rumours that drinking alcohol could cure them of the coronavirus [USA Today] spread around the country. Bootleggers made the alcohol and substituted toxic methanol for ethanol, using bleach to mask the colour.

To their credit, Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, and TikTok have been working hard to combat misinformation about coronavirus on their platforms [Vox].

👩‍💻 Take a deep breath, think, and research before you share

🛑 Panic can drive people to do irrational things. Drinking bleach, snorting cocaine, or drinking bootleg alcohol can seem like they are worth a try when you are a victim of a pandemic that the world’s best doctors and scientists still don’t know how to cure. That’s why it’s critical NOT to spread misinformation.

+ To Fight Covid-19, Curb the Spread of Germs—and Rumors [WIRED]

Much more important are the consequences of all that sharing. In the case of Covid-19, those consequences often trigger acute panic.

Research any information before sharing forward. Almost all information can be verified very quickly with an online search. If you’re not certain, keep the information to yourself. If you need help learning how to identify fake news, edX has a free online course [edX].

Even if the information is valid, think about its impact. If it has the potential to cause unnecessary panic, don’t share. And, don’t just think about your immediate audience, think about the exponential audience if your post goes viral. You may know your friends are rational and will understand your joke, but you can’t be certain of the people it will spread to beyond your network.

📲 Technology is crucial to help combat the coronavirus

The impact of this coronavirus would be much worse without the technology we have at our disposal today.

🧬 In a mere two weeks after the WHO was informed of the virus, scientists were able to isolate the virus and figure out the full sequence of its genetic material [The Verge]. Immediately after that, labs around the world could make synthetic copies of the virus to start their research on testing and vaccines.

During SARS in 2002, sequencing took months followed by many more months to create synthetic copies. Along with gains in the speed of genetic sequencing, the costs have dropped equally dramatically. During SARS, it cost $10 to create a synthetic copy of one single nucleotide. Today, it’s under 10 cents. The coronavirus gene has 30,000 nucleotides so the cost benefits are monumental.

+ Gene sleuths are tracking the coronavirus outbreak as it happens [MIT Technology Review] - The speed of genetic sequencing is also helping scientists track the mutations around the world in nearly real-time. They are creating a family tree for the virus and it’s helping then understand how it is spreading and where containment is working and not working.

🌏 First-hand information at our fingertips

We are blessed to be able to get first-hand information freely via various credible online sources. Other than the WHO website and the CDC’s website, many leading research institutes and universities like Johns Hopkins have up to date information on the latest findings and statistics.

+ 7 best coronavirus dashboards to map the spread of COVID-19 [The Next Web] - A great resource to find a dashboard to stay up to date on the latest statistics worldwide. However, be careful to visit the official websites. Hackers are taking advantage of the situation and creating similar looking website dashboards that install malware on your computer [The Next Web]. (🎩Hat tip to Melissa for sharing this article)

🧯 Big Tech battling misinformation

Unlike their approach to politics, Big Tech has been pro-active in curbing the spread of misinformation on the coronavirus [Consumer Reports]. Google searches for coronavirus feature the WHO and CDC websites prominently along with only trusted news sources. The same with YouTube, that is also owned by Google. Facebook is giving free ad space to the WHO [The Next Web] to help cut down on coronavirus misinformation. Twitter is also issuing advertising credits to non-profit organisations wishing to undertake fact-checking work or convey reputable public health information [The Drum]. In about 50 countries, Twitter has also modified its search feature to ensure that people seeking information are only presented with credible and authoritative sources.

👨‍💻 Work from home and learn from home

Social distancing is currently the best method to slow the spread of the virus. With numerous technologies that enable us to work and collaborate remotely, working and learning from home is possible in many industries and significantly helping to reduce the spread.

Many of the biggest companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Microsoft have introduced work from home policies in areas affected by the virus [CNN]. Numerous schools and universities worldwide have switched to online lessons within days or hours of deciding to do so.

Even 10 years back, this would not have been possible. We are extremely fortunate that we have all these tools at our disposal to help mitigate the spread as well as continue with critical functions in our lives.

Needless to say, this is not possible for everyone in every industry, and lots of people are suffering from the economic ramifications of the virus. However, the ability for a significant portion of the population to be able to work or study remotely, benefits everyone as far as slowing the spread of the virus is concerned.

💗 A source of hope, collective grieving, comfort, solace, and maybe even love

As much as social media gets a bad reputation for being a source of misinformation, it is providing a platform for collective grieving, comfort, solace, and most importantly hope. From friends, family, and strangers. Human connection is critical for health. With reduced physical interactions, social media and technology provide the next best thing [The Atlantic].

💞 People on Tinder from various countries worldwide changed their location to Wuhan to get direct information from those in the epicentre of the outbreak. One couple who met this way, even have plans to travel and meet once the pandemic is over [The New York Post].

🍎 A few bad apples

As in every crisis, there are those who try to scam people or profit through price gouging. Beware of them. Many sellers on Amazon have hiked their prices [CBS News] to ridiculous levels - a package of Lysol for $220 and a mask for $195 among others. Amazon has tried to combat this by removing 530,000 products and suspending 2,500 sellers [CNBC], but many products and sellers are still active. This is not a problem exclusive to Amazon. Other online marketplaces like eBay and Etsy are battling with the same issues [The Motley Fool].

🙏 Gratitude to the people on the ground

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the scientists, doctors, nurses, medical staff, and those in the service industry for their selfless work around the clock. While some of us have the benefit of choosing to stay home and be safe, these folks are risking their well-being and working around the clock to help treat people, save lives, ensure critical services are running and working on finding a cure for this.

🌼 Stock up on patience

This pandemic is probably going to be the catalyst to significant changes [Exponential View] in the way we work, play, learn, travel, and live together over the next few months, and long after we’ve defeated the virus. Change requires patience, so stock up. We’re all going to need lots of it.

Quote of the week

Dr Robert Murphy, executive director of the Institute for Global Health at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and an infectious diseases professor, speaking about the coronavirus:

“The one thing we really don’t need is mass hysteria. Eighty percent of people have such minor symptoms, they don’t actually require any medical care at all. The 20 percent who do feel quite ill need to be evaluated, and some of them will require hospitalization and some of them will require intensive care.”

— Dr. Robert Murphy

Have a brilliant day ahead and I wish you and your loved ones good health :)

Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands. Regularly.