Editor's Note: This piece was authored by Young Voices contributor James Czerniawski.
The coronavirus pandemic has certainly thrown the world for a loop. Governments are at a loss on how to effectively address the issue, making policy decisions like statewide shutdowns that send local economies into a tailspin. This isn’t a surprise, since the government is pretty prone to mishandling crises.
But the good news is that the private sector is stepping into the gap. Technology companies, for instance, have been playing an increasingly important role in responding to crises.
The government can help—by getting out of their way.
One of the first and most glaring issues in the early days of the coronavirus’s advent in America was our desperate and unmet need for adequate and widespread testing. Early failures in the management of testing by the CDC and FDA due to regulatory processes have been well documented. However, on February 29, when the FDA lifted the red tape and the private sector was allowed to step in, it responded beautifully. Companies like Everlywell, Carbon Health, and Nurx produced home-test kits capable of providing results in 48 hours. And Utah-based Co-Diagnostics, which can produce up to 50,000 tests a day, is also taking advantage of these rule changes to bring more tests to more people in less time.
Tech has softened the blow to many students suddenly barred from their classrooms, too. As COVID-19 spread, schools have been forced to close down and convert to online class formats, which many were ill-equipped to do. Fortunately, tech companies like Zoom, an online video conference platform, were able to step up to the plate. They offered all K-12 schools free access to their technology so that educators could continue doing their jobs. While taking preventative measures to control the spread of coronavirus is important, it shouldn’t come at the cost of educating our youth. Thanks to companies like Zoom, it doesn’t have to.
The nature of work is also dramatically altered. As a result of various government mandates, millions of people are being forced to stay home and work remotely—a shift in working conditions that has added a new stress on service providers around the globe. In fact, Europe actually requested streaming services like Netflix to lower the quality of their streaming content in order to prevent strain on their internet infrastructure. Meanwhile, in the United States, internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast, CenturyLink and Google Fiber are stepping up to the challenge, opening up free access to the internet to ensure workers and students alike have access to the digital connection they desperately need in these times.
And as our country experiences the shortage of certain medical supplies like medical masks and ventilators, private tech companies are leading the charge for change. In Montana, for instance, 3D printing technology is being used to make medical masks, which cost only $1 to produce. The masks, made of plastic, are much more sustainable than regular masks, as they can be sanitized and reused.
Part of the reason for the shortage is the highly protectionist regulations that artificially restrict the number of beds, facilities and ventilators even allowed. Thankfully, some states are rolling back these types of unnecessary restrictions. In Tennessee, for example, the governor signed an executive order massively deregulating the industry. It empowers telemedicine by relaxing regulations on how it can be used, expands scope of practice and allows for hospitals to use more beds than regulation presently allows.
But even more ubiquitous than the disease in America is a dearth of information that’s left us with more questions than answers. It’s why Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said last month that “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”
Thankfully, many major tech companies, like Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others, are doing something about that. On March 16, they issued a joint statement detailing their efforts to combat misinformation, ensuring that people are receiving accurate and up-to-date reports. They’ve also expanded their moderation to include artificial intelligence, which can prove to be helpful with managing the sheer number of posts on social media platforms. And while AI isn’t perfect, it’ll undoubtedly improve with time.
When disasters strike, people will look to their government for help, but, more often than not, the private sector is better equipped to solve the problems at hand. Tech companies, in particular, have stepped up to the plate repeatedly during the Coronavirus crisis, showing us just how much they can accomplish when they play an active role in the response efforts. Indeed, when red tape and top-down policy directives are sliced, governments unlock human ingenuity and creativity—allowing companies to do whatever they need to do to save lives.
James Czerniawski is a Young Voices contributor. Follow him on Twitter @JamesCz19.