At the time of writing, several countries are slowly starting to lift their lockdown restrictions (the UK government outlined a new lockdown roadmap in early May) and with hopes that we are turning the corner on this pandemic, we can now begin to reflect on how technology has been adopted by almost everyone in such a short space of time. As well as this, it will pay to look at how technology employed during the outbreak could be incorporated more into our everyday lives, post-coronavirus.
The coronavirus pandemic has seen the world move to the digital. To play our parts in keeping transmission rates down, people have adapted and are still learning to adapt to all things virtual—from digital communications with colleagues and loved ones to organisations rapidly moving their businesses online. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, recently spoke about out how the company saw two years of digital transformation in only two months.
With this in mind, I wanted to explore some of the predictions from two sectors which seem to have been impacted most from the shift to digital, and will continue to see major technological impact, even after we win our fight against this pandemic: retail and healthcare.
Retail is one of the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic. With global lockdowns affecting supply chains and people anxious about stepping outside their homes, physical stores that do not have an online counterpart struggle to stay afloat. We have, in fact, seen several major retailers going into administration in the past couple of months, such as Debenhams and Oasis.
Online retail is, of course, increasingly significant. In the UK, online retail sales grew by 22% in the first week of April, with various sectors seeing a huge jump in sales like beauty, electricals, and alcohol.
Shift to Online
As Microsoft’s Satya Nadella has highlighted, this change has been rapid: in response the pandemic and shift to digital many smaller stores that have never had a digital presence have moved their business online. People’s shopping habits have changed significantly, particularly with food shops, as consumers either went back to big weekly shopping (a practice we stopped doing a decade or so ago) or getting their food delivered online.
Meanwhile, the skyrocketing demand for online orders saw some retail outlets struggle to keep up. Websites and apps for UK supermarkets crashed several times at the start of the lockdown, while consumers had to wait for days to see an available delivery slot.
New Retail Trends
The state of the UK’s high streets is a topic that has seen wide coverage even before the pandemic, with a particular focus on retailers adapting to the climate emergency. These days, these retailers also need to move online to survive.
Delivering products, however, can prove to be a challenge, as in-person delivery poses a health risk both for the buyer and the delivery driver. To solve this, some countries are ramping up efforts to employ robot deliveries.
China, for instance, started using autonomous vehicles to deliver groceries in Beijing’s Shunyi District. In the UK, Milton Keynes has also started using beer cooler-sized robot vehicles to bring small deliveries to its 200,000 residents.
Banknotes also carry the risk of transmitting the virus. Central banks in the US, South Korea, and China have started quarantining physical bills to make sure these are clean before going back into circulation. This, however, doesn’t stop possible virus transmission as banknotes pass from hand to hand. As we think of moving out of the lockdown, there is much talk of a rise in contactless payments and contactless interfaces—either through the usage of cards or e-wallets—to minimise the risk of transmission. However, there has been no final decision made on this, as many people are without access to digital payments.
At the end of the day, these technological advancements open the question of whether this will be the future of retail and not just a pandemic novelty. I believe more consumers and businesses will continue to use these innovations, especially since there is still no cure in sight for COVID-19.
Healthcare is on the brink of seeing massive technological changes that could change the way we give and receive medical help—from AI to robotics, from connected devices to virtual reality.
In the early days of the outbreak in the UK, doctor appointments were moved online or on the phone. Even now, doctor appointments are conducted on the phone. Prescriptions were also made online and delivered, while non-essential operations had to be postponed.
New Healthcare Trends
Telehealth usage may become the new standard, as more patients, even in the UK, are being diagnosed and treated without needing to go to pharmacies or be near their physicians. The WHO has, in fact, recommended telemedicine to Europe to strengthen its response to COVID-19.
AI drug development is also underway to quickly come up with a much-needed vaccine. Some of these initiatives are now in the clinical trial phase. Without the help of AI, the traditional process of developing drugs can take months or years before proceeding to clinical trials. AI is also crucial in helping researchers test hundreds and thousands of molecules to figure out which ones can fight certain diseases—a feat that would be impossible for humans to manually do.
One of the multinational pharmaceutical companies leading the way in AI drug development is GlaxoSmithKline. Apart from recruiting 80 AI specialists before 2020 ends, the UK’s largest drugmaker has also invested $250 million (£203 million) in Vir Biotechnology for research and development of COVID-19 antibodies through CRISPR and artificial intelligence.
The lack of PPE for healthcare workers, meanwhile, has been well documented. A recent survey by the British Medical Association found that half of England’s doctors need to find their own PPEs to continue treating COVID-19 patients, with a quarter of them feeling anxious or distressed.
This shows that there is a gap in the market for more digital networks to support healthcare needs, such as vital equipment like PPE. One of Calvium’s current projects,PPE Hive, has been designed with the aim to connect those who need PPE with those who have the materials to make and transport them. This platform will allow healthcare workers to request PPE from those who can create them through 3D printing, simplifying the process and accelerating connections.
Light at the End of The Coronavirus Tunnel
Digital transformation has always been ongoing, but the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a huge uptake in just a few months.
It is my belief that technological advances in both retail and healthcare will change these industries irrevocably. Apart from their convenience, they also provide that additional layer of security that we’re reducing transmission rates by either minimising human contact or developing drugs and vaccines as quickly as possible.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the future. Overall, the key point I’ve gained from reading around the subject, is that tech is having a huge influence over which habits will stick post-coronavirus, making it even more important to be digitally prepared.
However, it is also equally important to take into consideration the fact that there are still many who don’t have access to the technologies discussed here. This new ‘digital era’ is problematic for some members of the community, especially those who are without devices, without connectivity, and those who do not have the foundational digital skills. The futures of healthcare and retail must ensure that digital delivery is not the only delivery.