How Covid-19 will change the world

The hustle and bustle of daily life has ground to a halt, large parts of Europe have become like ghost-towns with massive restrictions put on our lives, from lockdowns and school closures to travel restrictions and bans on mass gatherings.  Pubs and restaurants are closed for the duration.

But what will the duration be ?  When will we be able to get on with our lives ?

In his daily press briefing yesterday Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he believes the UK can “turn the tide” against the outbreak within the next twelve weeks and the country can “send coronavirus packing”.

But even if the number of cases starts to fall in the next twelve weeks that won’t be an end to the crisis.  The current strategy of shutting down large parts of society is not sustainable in the long-term.  The social and economic damage would be catastrophic.

But the coronavirus will not have disappeared in twelve weeks time.  If you lift the restrictions that are holding the virus back, then cases will inevitably soar.  That is the problem.

The UK’s short-term strategy is to reduce the number of cases as much as possible to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed, when you run out of intensive care beds then the number of deaths rise.  If we have reduced the number of cases then it may allow some measures to be lifted for a while, but then the number of cases will probably rise and another round of restrictions will be needed.

Taking this strategy will eventually lead to herd immunity as more and more people have survived the infection and developed immunity.  But herd immunity could take years to build up.

Developing drugs that can successfully treat a Covid-19 infection could make the disease less deadly and reduce pressures on intensive care beds and ventilators. This would allow countries to cope with more cases before needing to reintroduce lockdowns.  Increasing the number of intensive care beds would have a similar effect by increasing the capacity to cope with larger outbreaks.

Really the only long term practical solution is the development of a vaccine.  A lot of research is currently being done to develop such a vaccine but it could be a year or more away.

There has been an unparalleled global response to the disease.  But after it is over the world can’t ever be the same place again.  We cannot allow ourselves to be this vulnerable again.  We have to learn some hard lessons.

Universal Basic Income (UBI)

I’m not expecting the Government to announce a Universal Basic Income anytime soon.  They couldn’t afford it and it would be a bad idea to do anything so bold and far-reaching without a lot of thought and a lot of public debate.

The benefits system we have at the moment is not fit for purpose, Universal Credit was a good idea in theory, replace many different and complex benefits with one universal benefit which takes everything into account.  But the way it has been implemented is bad, unfair and ineffective.  It was implemented as more of a cost saving exercise than an attempt at a fair and equitable benefit system.

I think even before the virus crisis the government was starting to get the message that Universal Credit was broken and needed fixing.

I hope that the government have become aware of the economic insecurity caused by the pandemic fallout, and this might lead the Government to start at least thinking about UBI, or perhaps the less radical-sounding but similar idea of a ‘negative income tax’ (note that historically these ideas have had supporters on the right as well as the left).

During the financial crisis of 2008 the government injected huge sums of money into the banks in the form of ‘Quantitative Easing‘ which was meant to stimulate the economy but in actuality all it did was make the banks and big businesses richer.  It did not have much of an effect outside the rich elites.

UBI would put money into the pockets of ordinary people, they would not keep that money in their pockets, they would use it to buy things or put it into a bank.  The money would circulate in the wider economy.  In my opinion this would be a much more effective stimulus to the economy than ‘Quantitative Easing’.

Workers Rights

The virus crisis has exposed the precarious position of many workers who are on zero hours contracts and those who are self employed.  Many of these workers have no security of employment.  A lot of organisations are tempted to misclassify workers as self-employed because they cost less to employ and there is little or no provision for sickness benefits.

I read of an Amazon delivery driver who is classified as being a self employed contractor.  What if he gets the virus, he cannot afford to self isolate, if he doesn’t make deliveries he doesn’t get paid, simple as that.  It isn’t just Amazon there are many companies who use these practises to cut their costs.

The Government has made some response to this in the form of easier and faster entitlement to sickness benefits but it is not enough.

What is needed is to give all workers full employment rights and get rid of zero hours contracts.  The negative consequence for the self-employed is that their labour is undertaxed so many of them would end up paying more but they would get the advantage of sick pay and other rights.

If all labour was taxed at the same rate it would be much simpler and hugely reduce non-compliance and the costs of enforcement.  The revenue raised could be used to extend sickness cover to the self-employed and to encourage them to save for their retirement.

Business Travel

One thing which is obvious to me is that we will learn that we don’t need to travel as much.  I think this change has been coming for some time but the virus crisis will accelerate the change.  The biggest uses of air travel are business travel and tourism.

Long distance business travel was already challenged by high costs, the improving quality of video conferencing and the desire of organisations to appear to be taking action on climate emissions.

Psychologists tell us it takes just over eight weeks to form a habit.  After an extended period of being forced to use video conferencing, video phone calls and e-mail businesses might learn that face to face meetings are not as necessary as they once thought and this could lead to long term decline in business travel.  After the crisis is over this will have big consequences for those airlines which have not gone bankrupt.

Economics

The virus crisis and the reduction in travel which has ensued have caused a reduction in the price of oil.  The reduction in oil prices makes it more competitive against renewable energy which is a bad thing but the falling price is bad for fossil fuels as well.

However there is rising public concern about climate change.  The falling cost of renewable energy is a long term trend and will most likely continue after the virus crisis is over.

It is probable that the coming months will see a recession much more devastating than the financial crash of 2008.  The economic downturn is being exacerbated by the oil-price war which is going on at the moment.  Saudi Arabia is wanting to keep the price of oil low in order to sell as much of their reserves as possible before the world moves on to renewable energy.

After the virus crisis is over is likely that the fossil fuel sector will have much less influence and this could accelerate the shift towards more sustainable energy systems.

Government

The central ideological battle of our time is whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.

The magic of the market is an illusion, free market capitalism optimises for maximum profit, all else is secondary.  It is utter madness to leave such important issues as the welfare of the environment or public health to the ‘magic of the market’ or ‘shareholder value’.  Of course we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values.

The virus crisis seems to have brought about a change of heart in the Conservative party (at least temporarily) as they become enthusiasts for extra spending and quietly drop their commitment to shrinking the national debt and the public sector.  I hope it won’t be too little too late.  The NHS has suffered more than a decade of tory austerity, underfunding and mismanagement.  It is now in a parlous state barely able to cope with the surge of cases from seasonal flu.  The effects of this sort of chronic underfunding cannot be reversed in a short time just by throwing a lot of money at it.

What we need is a health service which is maintained in a good condition by a government which actually cares about it and with enough spare capacity to cope with occasional shocks to the system.  Unfortunately this will cost a lot of money … but it would be worth it.

Patently Obvious

Patents are useless and stifle innovation.  The only people who benefit from patents are patent lawyers and big companies with lots of money.

Some people think that when you take out a patent it somehow protects your idea from being copied by other people or companies.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  All you get when you take out a patent is a piece of paper which says that you have the right to sue anyone using your idea without your permission.

The cost of actually defending a patent is enormous.  What this means is that big business and those with lots of money can use the patent system to their advantage against small startup companies and individuals who don’t have the money to defend their patent.

In effect this means that big business can ignore patents on any ideas they use that are held by small companies or individuals knowing that they can afford to bankrupt the other party if legal action is taken against them even if they are in the wrong.

A company would rather pay hundreds of thousands of pounds to their legal department to break your patent than pay you a few hundreds or thousands of pounds in royalties.  Patents which are not owned by the company are something to be ignored or worked around or broken in court.

And then there is the issue of Patent Trolls.  Companies with lots of money who accumulate ownership of lots of patents with no intention of ever developing them into useful products, instead they wait until someone else develops the idea and then sue them.

I work for the NHS in a research department.

A few years ago we had an idea to help clinicians in Accident & Emergency with a problem they have fairly regularly.  When the patients airways are blocked it may be necessary to insert a breathing tube, if it is necessary then you only have a short time to get the tube inserted correctly before the patient becomes starved of oxygen.  What this means is that you have to get it right first time because you only get one chance.

The problem is that the throat splits into two tubes, the oesophagus which leads to the stomach and the trachea which goes to the lungs.  The breathing tube has to go down the trachea or the patient suffocates, but the anatomy is arranged so that things naturally go down the oesophagus so it is quite difficult to get the tube in correctly and takes a fair amount of skill on the part of the clinician or paramedic.

The idea we had was for a tube which fits inside a standard breathing tube, an inner tube with a small video camera and LED light mounted in the end with wires which could be pulled to angle or guide the end of the tube.  The clinician can actually see what they are doing.  When the tube is correctly positioned you pull out the inner tube leaving the breathing tube inserted correctly.  Video cameras are now small enough to make this possible.

We had this developed to the stage of a working prototype.  A small battery powered plastic box with an LCD screen and a tube which was waterproof which could be inserted into a standard breathing tube.

But there was a problem, the idea had already been patented.  A firm of lawyers in America had a patent on this idea (and a lot of other ideas) so the lawyers for our NHS trust decided that this project could not be developed because of the fear of legal action by the American law firm.

I wouldn’t mind but the law firm in America are just patent trolls, their intention is to patent many ideas and then when someone develops something which uses one of their ideas they will leap out from under the bridge and present them with a writ.  They have no intention of ever developing this idea, even if they did they have neither the expertise or the facilities to do so.

So patents actually stifle innovation.  This device could have been saving lives in British hospitals by now but instead it will not be developed because a firm of lawyers in America want to make a lot of money out of it someday.

 

A Virtual Hearing Aid

There are problems with hearing tests and the provision of hearing aids in poorer countries, but an alternative use of existing technology could provide a partial solution.


The project I did for my bachelors degree was the design of an audiometer.  An Audiometer is a device to test a persons hearing.

This audiometer was designed to run from batteries and used very little power.  It was designed for use in third world countries.  But unfortunately there were some problems.  The headphones used in hearing tests are very expensive so even if the audiometer could be made very cheaply the headphones would be the limiting factor in how cheaply the audiometer could be sold.

There is also a problem in providing hearing aids to people in third world countries, even if the aid is provided for free (which is rare) then the ongoing cost of batteries is often too much for some poorer people.

It seems to me that there are many mobile phones in the world, even in third world countries many people who struggle to find the money for food have a mobile phone in their pocket.  Also countries like India manufacture very cheap Android mobile phones.

Mobile phone manufacturers have done a great deal of research into making mobile phones efficient at playing music into headphones using as little battery power as possible.

It ought to be possible to program an application to take the sound from the microphone and play it through the headphones with the facility to adjust the volume, this ought to be a fairly simple application.  It might even be possible to include a graphic equaliser to adjust the frequency response.

If this were possible, especially if this app was available as a free download then deaf people in third world countries who already have a mobile phone could download a ‘virtual’ hearing aid for free.

Of course I would always recommend a professionaly done hearing test and I acknowledge that a mobile phone app is no substitute for a real hearing test and a properly prescribed hearing aid but healthcare in third world countries is seldom free and having some sort of hearing aid is better than going without anything, but only if it is your only option.

Because this idea has been put out into the public domain in this blog nobody can apply a software patent to the idea, they could copyright their own implementation of the idea but they could not stop anyone from writing a different implementation of the idea.

I have never written a mobile phone app so I don’t know how complicated it might be to write such an app but it seems to me that it might not be that complicated and it would certainly be of potential use to a great many people.

Who is up for the challenge?