Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Pandemics and the Internet

My last point pointed out how many people died in the flu pandemic in Ireland in 1918.

To take the example of Japan according to Gapminder 1918 had a huge drop. The other big drop is the is the second world war with all the bomb dropping and shooting that involved.

David Eagleman has an interesting point here about how the internet can help prevent and reduce epidemics.

"The internet can be our key to survival because the ability to work telepresently can inhibit microbial transmission by reducing human-to-human contact. In the face of an otherwise devastating epidemic, businesses can keep supply chains running with the maximum number of employees working from home. This can reduce host density below the tipping point required for an epidemic. If we are well prepared when an epidemic arrives, we can fluidly shift into a self-quarantined society in which microbes fail due to host scarcity."

Eagleman has a good short video on his thesis

The long term effects of a sudden switch to everyone avoiding each other for a month or two could be huge. These would include

Education: How schools help spread influenza has been studied. 'School closures during the 2009 influenza pandemic: national and local experiences'. If all the schools were closed for a few months and people would move to Khan Academy and other online education sites. After this period a switch back to a fully non online world won't happen

Telecommuting: In a similar way online telecommuting would become much more popular. After a quarantine lite period the use of online project management and other telecommuting tools would become mainstream.

Shopping: If you don't meet people in school or at work you meet them in the shops. Deliveries of shopping would be strongly encouraged in the event of a pandemic. They should probably even be sponsored. Shops would not get as popular again once everyone got used to online shopping.

Banking: No one likes queuing in the banks at the best of times. Even ATMs would become horrible grubby in a pandemic world. Everything including social welfare payments would try and avoid using the fomite that is cash.

Telemedecine: People with the influenza need to be kept away from people who are sick. People with other illnesses will have to be dealt with remotely to avoid them coming into contact with people with influenza.

Public Events: Public events parades, cinemas, bars and museums would be closed. By their nature these involve people. If public events are made cheaper to attend virtually that will reduce the need for people to meet up. By this I mean if Sky Sports is made free for a few months people will be less annoyed no fans are allowed attend the football game.

There are many people without access to the internet that would not be helped by the use of digital technologies. Hopefully the use of digital technologies will help focus more of the traditional public health effort on them.

When the next pandemic happens the internet will reduce the consequences. Many industries will also change but the main thing is to avoid the 50 to 100 million the last pandemic killed.


Séan Billings said...

I can certainly see that approach having the desired effect, but I'm not sure how much of it would stick afterwards.

After a few weeks cooped up in the house I would be chomping at the bit to get out and about. People are social creatures. We go out to restaurants, pubs, etc. for a change of scene and to be with other people, not just for the food/drinks we get. It's the same with sports/cultural events; online or TV is not the same experience.

David Curran said...

I think that is a fair point. there will be a challenge to let people meet other people in a way that minimises the spread of disease.

I guess some sort of house party with groups of about a dozen will become the thing.

Paul Rubin said...

One other problem with Eagleman's thesis: if we're all working remotely from coffee shops (a common phenomenon where I live ... but I live in a college town), we may actually be worse off. A common transmission mechanism for some germs is contact with lavatory faucets and light switches, and let's face it: sit in a coffee shop long enough and you'll meet your 'loo.

David Curran said...

Good point Paul. Working from home has to mean stay at home and do not go out.

Theatres were closed in the last pandemic. Restaurants, bars and coffee shops will close this time. But will the government be willing to pay the workers and owners for loss earnings?

As in will the government say 'three months everything closed and we've printed an extra trillion to pay for it". Politically pandemic prevention might not be doable