Emerging Trends
April 8, 2020

COVID-19: The Infrastructure Conundrum (OPINION)

By Ria Sen, Preparedness and Resilience Officer, Global Emergency Telecoms Cluster, Technology Division, World Food Programme

COVID-19 is testing infrastructural and telecommunications “readiness” to handle a global-scale crisis, that is not induced by a natural hazard. In a pandemic scenario, infrastructure is not damaged or destroyed beyond repair, but experiences surmounting pressure due to increased, and at times unrelenting, demand. This demand-driven pressure is evident most in the ICT and health sectors, straining in both developed and developing countries alike.

If the demand for receiving healthcare cannot be met in a timely manner, not every ill person can be treated equally. A “trade off” type of decision is made on a precious life. The lack of health infrastructure (such as hospital beds), is further compounded by lack of equipment (including “protective personal equipment”), and highly stressed communications infrastructure to handle this demand surge. In a telling recent news headline, “Italian doctors on coronavirus frontline face tough calls on whom to save,” demonstrates the terrible choice befalling healthcare professionals on whom to save: a decision which is a function of the lack in critical infrastructure.

Let us now consider the “prevention” side, if above we explored the efforts at “cure”. Workforces have been disbanded, and are now working “online” from remote. A lot more logistical supply, and emergency responder efforts, need to be coordinated digitally from remote — all part of the worldwide efforts to stall rapid contagion. The global, and indeed, national ICT infrastructures are under heavy stress from relentless usage for both business purposes, and also digital recreation and sustaining personal relationships using telecoms networks. Demand, here too, outweighs supply. Communications redundancy, and more specifically national broadband infrastructure, will be put to the test, in the days to come. This is not only witnessed in nations with poor infrastructure, but also sounds of the most advanced in the world!

In some country contexts, ICT is being used openly as a monitor for the spread of COVID, including controversially — the very movements of COVID-positive persons. This has opened up a policy debate, on the “trade off” between public health goals and citizen data privacy and protection. This ongoing health crisis has prompted public and private entities to closely consider updating their artificial intelligence application guidelines (as AIs can gather insight faster, with greater accuracy), and when to waive their data privacy commitments.

Where COVID-19 has run the worst of its deadly course, the stress to health infrastructure may cease, but the stress to communications infrastructure is still going strong. In the financial sector, “stress tests” are routinely undertaken by financial institutions, testing their “health” and “resilience”, to bounce back, should a simulated crisis occur. It’s time for telecoms entities to undertake such “stress tests”, through crisis simulations, to check their readiness levels and ensure their business process continuity is up-to-speed! [SHE IS ASSUMING THEY DON’T HAVE THESE STRESS TESTS? WHAT WOULD SUCH STRESS TESTS LOOK LIKE IN THE COVID-19 CONTEXT? WHAT ARE THE RAMIFICATIONS OF OVERSTRESSED TELECOMS NETWORKS ON WFP’S EFFORTS — AND THE EFFORTS OF THE GLOBAL EMERGENCY ICT CLUSTER?] Only when networks are resilient and redundant will the communications lifelines be strong and withstand the demand surge in such crises.

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COVID-19: The Infrastructure Conundrum (OPINION)

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