Covid19 and Coming Back to Life
Off The Blocks, Vol 112, April 28, 2020
|Apr 28|| 6|
The COVID-19 pandemic is creating a lot of turbulence worldwide. Most industries have been shut down and companies will see a sharp fall in their business as both supply and demand are disrupted. After having assessed the situation, we are working with our partners to resolve some of the most complicated and challenging issues to get the economy back on its feet. We are tackling it head-on with our portfolio company Vottun and an ecosystem of partners in the US and Europe. To be a part of the ecosystem, please reach out to Aman Johar (email@example.com).
Part 3: Coming Back to Life - A Public-Private Partnership Is Essential
More than 3M people have been infected by the coronavirus worldwide and more than 200K people have lost their lives in a mere 4 months of the pandemic. As countries have imposed strict lockdowns on people and workers, much economic activity has ground to a halt. The number of passengers traveling through the TSA checkpoints in the USA has dropped by over 90%. This is a good proxy to guesstimate the lack of demand for any services whatsoever.
The collapse in demand briefly led to negative prices for the WTI crude oil last week as we ran out of storage capacity and there was no entity to take physical possession of it. The loss of economic activity has been so drastic that it is now starting to threaten a complete breakdown of our food supply chain. California just extended its lockdown to the end of May. The impact of this extension is perhaps not being priced in by the financial markets that remain optimistic about the reopening of the economy.
In the last two weeks, I have tried to offer innovative ideas on how we can minimize the impact on the economy by building an ecosystem of partners. The idea revolves around continuously and rigorously testing everyone for the virus (through molecular tests) and enforcing quarantines for those infected. This is a heavy lift because any such ecosystem necessarily requires:
A coming together of private company employers and the Government’s stated public policies;
Healthcare providers and technology companies, both of whom do not speak in the same language, especially as relates to health data sharing;
A major rethink about employer-employee relationships, privacy rights, individual freedoms, human rights, etc.
More than the disruption in supply chains, logistics, collaborations etc., this is a case of erosion of trust amongst systems that have for long served us well. We no longer trust our environment, outside our homes, to be a safe place for us to work, learn, play, or just hang out. There is no magic cure. In order to get our economy back, we need to rethink, adapt, learn, and create a path forward.
In short, this is Nation Building 101. And every country needs to follow its own path.
In my conversations with executives, it is apparent that while coming back to work is a process sprinkled with many unknows, the process will be gradual. For some (smaller) businesses that want to open immediately, executives acknowledge that they are looking at some guidance from the Government agencies and the associated public policies and would need to comply with them. Other (large employers) who can afford to be more patient are also looking to Government policies to help them understand the procedures to implement and the investment they need to make in order to make their workforce feel safe while not intruding on their physical and data privacy matters. Most are still struggling to understand how molecular (or serological) testing results can be obtained without violating any legal technicalities, and how to store and make use of the data.
Overall, employers seem to be in favor of using a tech app to screen people for symptoms and if they test positive, isolate them from any physical contact with others. In all of our demos for the Vottun solution, almost everyone agreed that the real-time nature of the app, combined with a way to preserve individual privacy provides a safe and actionable pathway for testing, tracing, and screening. A green credential allows people to roam around freely, access public spaces, work, travel as normal. A red credential means people have to quarantine themselves. Yet, two major questions have come up repeatedly:
Since people can remain asymptomatic for more than a week, how can we ensure that the test data is current?
What we know bout the disease and the available testing keeps changing on a daily basis. There are a lot of tests available in the market and not all of them have the same or similar levels of specificity. For a system digital credential system to work, there needs to be a reliable test kit - ideally one that can flag asymptomatic patients as well. One of the newest test kits by Labcorp does precisely that and maybe a good candidate to start anchoring around. The Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test administered by Labcorp provides for a home-based nasal swab that can identify the coronavirus strains in asymptomatic patients. Widespread use of this test kit and results can help test frequently, perhaps on a daily basis, and identify infectious people ahead of time. Users can generally have the results within 24 hours and may need to isolate themselves during this period. The goal here may not be the complete elimination of spread of infection, but to bring down the rate at which the infection spreads, so that patients can be managed better in clinical settings. Other in-home tests such as Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) may be available in a few months that could provide a result in real time. Widespread adoption of these testing mechanisms is critically important for this solution to succeed. With enough samples, it would be easy to construct dashboards to identify hot spots, and change public policy in case aberrations from normal are spotted.
We are in conversation with medical providers for implementing such a solution for their frontline workers. Healthcare workers should be able to know their own status prior to interacting with patients. This kind of PCR testing may be essential for businesses to start opening up with a critical mass of essential workers. For sports leagues and stadiums (such as NFL, NBA etc.), rival teams (and coaches, therapists, support staff) can undertake the test and everyone who tests negative can proceed with participating in the game. This allows them to start turning the economic wheel, bring in much-needed broadcast and advertiser revenue and start creating the demand back again. When an RDT test is available, stadiums can insist on such testing prior to allowing fans back into the game. However, to pull this off at scale requires a full public-private partnership, cooperation, and coordination.
What happens when someone with a ‘red’ QR code shows up?
How does one handle a person who tests positive at the ballgame or shows up despite having tested positive? Should they have a quarantine zone where such people can be quickly isolated? Should they be whisked off to a medical facility or left on their own? What are the venue’s liabilities in case the venue turns into a hotspot of infection? These are questions with no easy answers and one that requires public policy guidelines around processes to be framed around such circumstances. This issue calls for even more cooperation between employers, public venue operators, healthcare providers, and perhaps government agencies such as law enforcement.
Adding to the complexity is the fact that data collection, tracking, and tracing can feel highly intrusive to personal liberties and freedoms that we all have cherished forever. One way to build more trust in this system is to ensure that all data collected for testing purposes is de-identified, encrypted, and out of bounds for any other commercial purpose. For example, test and health status data can be permanently deleted after say 45 days or so, when such data would inherently be meaningless for the explicit purpose of ensuring public safety.
A note on serological testing: There has been a lot of media attention that is focused on immunity, where certain tests show that a person may have antibodies for the virus. WHO published a scientific guideline recently stating that even in the presence of antibodies, it is not clear whether people may actually be immune to a second infection or a variant of it, or how long such an immunity may last. Further, it would take a long time for millions of people to get infected and develop the antibodies where ‘herd immunity’ concepts may start to kick in. As such, these tests may be of limited applicability for the purposes of starting to open up the economy.
The need of the hour is to be able to create an ecosystem of stakeholders including healthcare providers, first responders, government policy czars, and technology providers to be able to gradually open up of the economy and illuminate the pathway. It is perhaps ok for white-collar workers to be able to work from home, yet many essential services depend on people working in the field and working on jobs that cannot be done remotely such as those in hospitals, utilities, agriculture, logistics, etc. Given that many of these jobs are also staffed by low-income workers, the economic impact of the shutdown will be disproportionately higher for them. It is therefore essential that we think about and implement ways to let people go back to work safely and restore some normalcy to their lives.
These are unprecedented times and require unprecedented cooperation to build solutions that will lift us out of the quagmire.
Proteum is a global blockchain investment and advisory firm that works with public, private and start-up companies to help them transition into the world of blockchains and decentralized applications. We help companies strategically build their ecosystem and unique capabilities so that they can own and control their future. Velocity, our innovation hub, invests in and accelerates the time to market for startups and emerging ideas.