Flattening the curve: Punjab’s ICT interventions 

By facilitating safe relief in the most vulnerable areas and resolving secondary challenges emerged in this newly socially distanced lifestyle, we are preparing ourselves to face bigger challenges as successfully as any developed nation would

The task to tackle an epidemic seems challenging but tech-driven initiatives have always made the drill easier. This was the case during dengue outbreak a few years back. One – because the enemy was visible. When you are able to identify your enemy, it becomes easier to combat the attack. Plus, dengue wasn’t a newly discovered epidemic with the first case dating back to 1789. In comparison to COVID – 19, since the dengue source was visible, to build a possible defense mechanism was doable. With the support and guidance of WHO, governments of dengue struck countries were able to detect the cause and combat the epidemic effectively. 

When COVID-19 broke out in Pakistan, the situation looked grim. This was an unseen enemy that emerged on the frontline unwarned shaking even the strongest of the nations to their very core. The interesting part is that while COVID-19 cases were rising, there was a boom in digital epidemiology tools aiming to stem the tide. 

Technology, not only in terms of bio-tech, has always helped people tackle situations during an epidemic. Epidemiology, the branch of public health sciences which through scientific research, data and analysis helps combat an epidemic has always helped in this regard. This is particularly so when tracking and treating viruses. Just two years ago, Kinsa’s smart connected thermometers in the US helped indicate illness spikes by collecting user data. On the other hand, a study published by Scripps Research Translational Institute indicated that resting-heart-rate and sleep-duration data collected from Fitbit devices could help inform timely and accurate models of population-level influenza trends. 

ICT tools are enabling healthcare officials and authorities to tackle the pandemic quite effectively. Health and digital gurus have joined hands to introduce innovative digital epidemiology tools, including chatbot helpers, EHR guidance tools and rapid-response test kits. Singapore government data has enabled detailed mapping of the corona outbreak, while, South Korea is tracking potential carriers using cell phone satellite technology. In Vietnam, authorities are tracking locals and foreigners via mobile apps. Immigration authorities in Thailand, instead, are using location data of those arriving. In countries like Belgium and Italy, ICT tools have even offered consolation to the bereaved families by streaming funerals online and obtain updated stats. 

Every country, according to its own capacity, is relying on ICT interventions to tackle COVID-19. For a developing nation like Pakistan, the challenge to combat COVID-19 has been quite taxing. Firstly, there was the pandemic that had to be controlled. Secondly, despite the improving situation, the socio-economic challenges are yet to be addressed. 

Apart from adopting essential measures to encourage social distancing through various ventures like e-Pay Punjab, e-Challan Payment System, and e-Transfer, Punjab government’s ICT initiatives have shown a positive outcome. Punjab IT Board is actively rendering services during smart lockdown through a number of ICT initiatives. 

Travelers Tracking and Tracing System is employing data from different sources to prevent spread of COVID-19.  Basic information and travel itinerary is obtained from sources like FIA and airport facilities. The Initial Screening Reports obtained from the airport are used to distinguish both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals, and travelers’ Corona test results from temporary quarantine facilities. The system provides geo-fencing of self-quarantined travelers using location-based tracking through mobile app. It also updates the results of screening and tests conducted, and shares this information with district administration. SMS alerts are sent to patients who test positive and people living in the same community.

Anti-Corona Activities System, developed by PITB for district administration, is used to monitor corona prevention activities. The system consists of a tracking app for field officials for geo-tagging of patients using photographic evidence. The system is enabling authorities to identify pandemic prone areas and develop GIS-based heat maps. Additionally, Live COVID Dashboard is providing real-time patient reporting, heat maps based on field activities, and identification of clusters for lockdown, chlorination, and disinfection. PITB is also rendering technical support for the dashboard at Command and Control Centers established at all Divisional Headquarters for this purpose.

Crisis and catastrophe bring along dire challenges that try human mind beyond its comprehension. This pandemic has brought into use ICT interventions in an extraordinary way, reshaping the field of epidemiology. By facilitating safe relief in the most vulnerable areas and resolving secondary challenges emerged in this newly socially distanced lifestyle, we are preparing ourselves to face bigger challenges as successfully as any developed nation would.  

Marian Sharaf Joseph is an independent journalist. Her work for local and global publications focuses on culture and community affairs