If there’s one thing that’s clear from the coronavirus crisis, it’s that our place in the world is fragile. Disaster always lurks around the corner. Hopefully, our public health professionals will contain this novel coronavirus soon, and catastrophe will be averted. But even if we get lucky this time, globalization means that the next epidemic could still spread rapidly, creating the same problems and the same risks all over again. Building a wall won’t keep out a virus.
In times of crisis, our natural instinct is to close ranks to anything or anyone new. That’s normal but not necessarily smart. When the status quo fails, we have to be open to new ideas.
One obvious place to start is telehealth—shorthand for the expanding universe of video, phone, and text-based medical services that can replace in-person visits with a doctor. In theory, everyone across the medical and political spectrum already agrees that making it easier for people to access healthcare makes sense. But in practice, while many tech startups are now able to deliver virtual care, some states lack clear regulations or impose arbitrary barriers on how telehealth should work. The federal government still doesn’t allow most Medicare recipients to receive care at home through telehealth. In some states, entrenched interests such as medical associations and insurers throw up barriers to telehealth because they’re afraid of losing market share. That needs to stop.
Telehealth means that patients who are afraid they have coronavirus can safely receive advice and medical care. Those who do have the symptoms can quickly be directed to facilities that treat the virus, and those patients can then start receiving treatment in their own homes. This helps protect doctors, nurses, and everyone else who treats the sick. Yes, just like in any context where a new idea is expedited, there’s always a risk of abuse or bad actors. Regulators don’t get to go on vacation just because we’re in a time of crisis. But denying people an option to get the care they need without the risk of spreading a pandemic would be the definition of government negligence.
This is more than an imperative to limit virus risk—it’s a wake-up call for a country that has become far too complacent.
The evolution of coronavirus from a local epidemic to a global pandemic is bound to test our politics, healthcare, and infrastructure. But it’s also an opportunity for us to consider how more aggressive research and development of cutting-edge technologies could strengthen those systems. Take our agricultural supply chains, for example. Given that we no longer live in an agrarian society, everyone needs to get their food from somewhere other than the fields outside their kitchen window. If everyone is quarantined, it’s hard to see how that happens—unless we embrace new ideas such as autonomous vehicles and delivery drones.
Yes, both technologies create a bevy of policy headaches. And in a perfect world, we would debate the pros and cons of each idea endlessly. But in a quarantined world, people will just need stuff. And when the debate requires buy-in from the local community board about where delivery drones should land or whether people should have access to food, it’s not really a debate. If we think that the risk of coronavirus or similar pandemics is real, we need to develop these capabilities now.
Telehealth, autonomous vehicles, and delivery drones are just a few examples of what we can do to mitigate the crisis. New technologies—from mobile voting to digital currencies to social media platforms that actually make people feel connected—all offer ways to limit risk and make people’s lives a little easier during a time of crisis. Government and federal agencies, too, should reassess old ways of doing business. Now is the time to be bold.
We’ll learn a lot about ourselves in the coming months—about our vulnerabilities, but also our entrepreneurial spirit.”
Coronavirus is a reminder that there are downsides to living in a hyperconnected world. The same jetliner that can move a human being across continents can also carry deadly viruses. But the emergence of the latest superbug should also prompt new appreciation for the powers of technology. We live in a world where social media is seen as a problem—a contributor to bullying, loneliness, self-doubt, impulsive behavior, disinformation. Parents are encouraged to limit their children’s access to social media, and they’re wise to do so. But if mass quarantines happen, social media becomes one of the few ways to keep people connected. Rather than just deciding that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and Snap are toxic, we should think about where they can add real value in a time when physical human contact may be limited. At a time when many people are afraid, we should acknowledge the strides that tech platforms have made to promote CDC guidance, share useful information, and curb conspiracy theories.
We’ll learn a lot about ourselves in the coming months—about our vulnerabilities, but also our entrepreneurial spirit. Just as the cold war fueled the space age, the age of pandemic risk should push us to develop, regulate, and launch new technologies that can mitigate the spread of disease whenever possible. And once it becomes known that governments are actively looking for ways to use technology to limit the spread of pandemics, hundreds of new ideas, apps, services, and products will spring up overnight. That’s how the innovation economy works. Let’s use it in a time of crisis. Let’s use it to our advantage. Let’s take the same thing that makes us vulnerable to pandemics—a global, interconnected, digital world—and use it to help ourselves. Given the risk ahead, it seems like the least we can do.
Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist, writer, philanthropist, and political strategist. Tusk Ventures has invested in some of the industries referenced in this column, including telemedicine, digital currencies, and autonomous vehicles. Tusk Philanthropies is a major backer of mobile voting initiatives.