Beyond COVID-19: The Role of Blockchain in Future Pandemics

Three weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic in North America and most essential services are in triage mode — attempting to put out fires, stabilize operations and otherwise deal with immediate and pressing challenges caused by the spread of the virus.

The pandemic has shown fundamental weaknesses in systems ranging from health care to industrial supply chains to government services, validating decades of warnings from international agencies that a severe global health crisis was coming, and global governments are woefully underprepared for handling the systemic strains.

According to international agencies, globalization has exponentially increased the threat of international pandemics. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that if a similar contagion to the 1908 Spanish Flu happened today, it could kill up to 80 million people in a short time and wipe out 5% of the global economy.

We don’t know yet what the full impact of COVID-19 will be, but early predictions suggested our $100 trillion world economy would $3.5 trillion decline in growth — and this was made prior to the WHO pandemic declaration, economic shutdown, and social contact restrictions. The G20 has already committed $5 trillion to fighting COVID-19 worldwide, in addition to massive costs adding up across national governments.

The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), convened by the WHO and the World Bank, issued a dire warning in report from just September 2019:

“The world is not prepared. For too long, we have allowed a cycle of panic and neglect when it comes to pandemics: we ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget about them when the threat subsides. It is well past time to act.”

A primary challenge to pandemic response is the complexity and global scale of information management and distribution. Continual pandemic readiness requires an international data infrastructure that can streamline the coordination of real-time information sharing, the tracing of drugs and essential supplies, and protecting the health and safety of crisis responders.

Emerging technologies have the power to be game-changers for optimizing pandemic response and mitigating their potentially devastating losses to life, freedom of movement and the global economy. In the last few years, blockchain applications like smart contracts, supply chain management systems and digital assets have transitioned from the speculative, R&D stage to proven utility in business, government and NGOs, and the technology shows promise for addressing many of the biggest obstacles to effective pandemic relief.

Payments are one of the current mission-critical tasks that global governments are struggling with right now. With severe challenges in getting aid into the hands of citizens unable to work, the US is already exploring the benefits of a digital currency for faster and less expensive relief payment distribution. Tied to digital citizen identity wallets, blockchain-based payments have low transaction costs, better privacy and security and can be automatically triggered to issue nation-wide in a crisis.

Disease tracking and data analysis is helping governments and agencies identify flares and trends in the spread of the pandemic, but a lack of coordination and information sharing is a major obstacle to accurate predictions. A secure, decentralized database system that allows governments, health services and academic researchers to instantaneously exchange share data would be a massive upgrade, allowing for early-stage identification of emerging dangers and enhanced responses to existing outbreaks. According to one US/India joint research study from 2019, blockchain is the foundation for a vastly improved health surveillance system:

“…blockchain technology has the potential to strengthen disease surveillance systems in cases of disease outbreaks resulting in local and global health emergencies. In such conditions, blockchain can be used to identify health security concerns, analyze preventive measures, and facilitate decision-making processes to act rapidly and effectively.”

Protecting and managing essential supply chains is another primary issue right now with a massive social and economic cost, as hospitals run short of critical supplies, medications and face an increased risk of delivery delays and fraudulent medications and supplies. Opaque pharmaceutical supply chains are one of the most promising applications for blockchain, which provides an unbroken record of provenance with instant authentication. At a time when accurate delivery of supplies is a matter of life or death, innovative technologies like GPS-enabled geoblockchains give organizations a real-time visual accounting of products as they travel through complex supply networks.

Blockchain applications for disease management and stabilizing systems are not immediate solutions — they’re part of a comprehensive infrastructure that can help build more resilient economic and social systems and better responses. And it’s critical that we move fast. Historically, pandemics like COVID-19 have rarely been singular events, resolving after an initial infectious period and the gaining of widespread antigens — according to recent studies, the first wave of the disease is only the beginning.

The last four major pandemics — the catastrophic Spanish flu of 1918, 1957’s relatively minor Asian flu that caused just a few million deaths, the Hong Kong flu of 1968 and, more recently, 2009’s Swine flu — collectively caused tens of millions of infections, hospitalizations, and fatalities. Each of these pandemics mutated multiple times and hit in successive waves, with the second wave more likely to be even more virulent and severe.

Already, health officials like Dr. Fauci, head of the US’s head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is predicting that the economic shut-down caused by COVID-19 may be something we need to get used to, and that periods of society-wide isolation and remote work will need to be turned off and on like a light switch as the pandemic cyclically ebbs and crests over a matter of years.

Our current operational methods are overburdened after just a few weeks — this requires a systemic overhaul involving both government and industry that needs a long-range view that sees past the next election cycle, national economic forecast or quarterly earnings report. It will take significant investment and commitment to digital infrastructure, but the cost is minor compared to that of managing around chronic inefficiencies and using stop-gap solutions.

With the global economy ground to an unprecedented halt and our essential systems in danger of being overwhelmed, it’s finally time we heeded the warning from the WHO and World Bank report about our collective global unpreparedness.

We can no longer allow cycles of panic and neglect to put us at a disadvantage in managing crises we have every reason to believe are looming— we need to build a robust, resilient and intelligent infrastructure that can help us withstand whatever challenges may come. As we’re now seeing in stark relief, the challenges of the future won’t wait for us to catch up.


Beyond COVID-19: The Role of Blockchain in Future Pandemics was originally published in Data Driven Investor on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.