As Covid-19 spreads throughout the world, many cities, especially those with a high population density, are turning their attention to how to fight pandemics in times of crisis. These efforts include quarantining those who have been at risk of infection as well as providing public health information to reassure and inform their populations of the risks, symptoms, and necessary precautions to take in the time of a pandemic. Undoubtedly smart cities offer new and effective solutions to these serious issues.
For example, a key line of defense is asking persons that may have been in contact with an infected person to observe a 14-day home quarantine. However, access to food is a key to people observing this correctly and diligently. Subjects are often caught by surprise and may not have sufficient supplies to hand. Having been subject to this myself, I understand that reliance on family, friends or neighbors to bring supplies to the home opens up a possible chain of infection. Such personal networks may feel it too impolite to conduct the delivery without contact, or feel that they should check-in on the quarantined person.
However, cities with an established network of food and grocery delivery apps have a distinct advantage. Since the goods are paid for in-app, the delivery can be conducted with no contact between the delivery person and the receiver, with the delivery being left on the doorstep. In a time of an epidemic every limitation on chains of infections is a win. Additionally, these services may offer a buffer for restaurants and food stands who often see business plummet as citizens become wary of venturing out for meals or to walking around night markets.
A serious outbreak can affect a whole community, district or even in extreme cases, entire cities. In such situations, companies may suggest that white collar workers work from home even though no government restrictions are in place. Schools can also take advantage of conferencing platforms such as Zoom to allow teachers to provide instruction to high school students without opening up the schools and risking increased community contact.
The way in which Covid-19 is spread is not yet fully understood, but we now know it may be transmitted by touch. As worries arise that the virus can survive for an extended time on surfaces, on Feb 16th China announced a scheme to disinfect physical cash in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus. Contactless payment through cards or mobile apps greatly cuts down on the circulation of cash and reduce hand-to-hand contact or cashiers handling credit cards as part of the transaction.
Another advantage for smart cities is that ‘last mile’ solutions such as bicycle and scooter sharing schemes give citizens the option of further reducing personal reliance on subways and buses for short to medium distances. This may also help lessen crowding on public transport – which can up the risk of cross-infection between people. Naturally, cautious users should take some extra precautionary steps such as wiping down handlebars with an alcohol wipe and carrying their own motorcycle helmet.
It has become increasingly clear that in order to prevent the spread of the virus, good hand hygiene is crucial. However, spend a little time discreetly observing people using the public bathrooms around you. You will find it reveals uncomfortable insights. Sometimes the soap dispenser may be empty. Many people ignore, or are ignorant of, the correct procedure to wash hands thoroughly. Neglecting to use soap, rinsing a few fingers of one hand, or walking out without washing hands at all are more common than one might think, even in a heightened state of awareness.
So how can existing smart solutions help? One way might be using smart signs at bus stops or other public places to screen Public Service Announcements (PSA) with videos on the correct handwashing technique (or other relevant epidemic related messages).
Of course poor hand hygiene is not just a cause for concern in the time of a pandemic. Improving public handwashing habits can help reduce common viruses such as norovirus and regular flu in more normal times. This suggests that there is room for long term IoT solutions integrated into public toilets in subway stations or airports.
At the most simple level, lack of soap could be dealt with by IoT dispensers which alert the relevant authorities to refill the machine when it is getting low.
A more complex system might use sensors to detect when a person leaving the stalls area exits without entering the sink area and flash up a reminder message. For those who enter the sink area light alerts, which are less invasive than sound, could guide people toward spending the right amount of time washing their hands. For example, step up to the sink short blast of water; soap dispenser lights up; action motivated dispensed soap; tap turns on for 20 seconds while light shows hand rubbing actions; water and lights turn off. If the sensors register that a person leaves the sink area early, again a reminder message that proper handwashing stops the spread of disease and is important to public/personal health could be employed.
Smart cities already offer citizens solutions to deal with some pandemic-related scenarios, but as urbanization is on the up, future plans should include addressing health emergencies/pandemics as a matter of course to ensure that people are informed and confident in the measures being taken. Furthermore smart city plans should include public health challenges as part of their ‘wish-list’ to inspire innovators to come up with solutions that serve the people who live in them. With many companies and individuals already invested in finding smart city opportunities it is possible that the challenges of a global pandemic might act as a catalyst to find innovative ways to use existing smart systems as well as accelerate completely new ideas and technologies.
Written by Phoebe Cassidy, writer and long-term resident of Taipei, Taiwan.