By Dr Ajey Lele
Space Technologies have a bit of different context than say medicine, biotechnologies and medical instrumentation in regards to its utility for addressing global pandemics like COVID-19. The prevailing threat to humanity is so enormous that there is a need to use every available resource to defeat the murderous coronavirus and there is a need to use the existing satellite networks for this purpose with some novelty. Satellites are the only instruments at present which are keeping a significant amount of ‘Social Distance’ from the disease! This article debates on how space technology is getting used in the fight against the COVID-19 and what more could be done.
First and foremost, through the recent COVID-19 crisis, satellite technology is found proving its utility for support. Both, at macro and micro level the satellites are providing information about the success of the global response to the stay at home and social distancing policies. Satellite imageries are providing the information in regards to the activities happening (not-happening) in major cities, tourist destinations, highways, industrial sites and places which are generally known to be crowded during normal days. Also, a critical assessment of the medical facilities and mortuaries could be done based on satellite imagery. At this stage, to carry out various satellite-data derived assessments’, there is a need to have a two-way dialogue between the space agencies and the users. Both agencies could decide on what is required and what is doable.
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Currently, as the pandemic is unfolding, various governments are found requiring different types of information for taking decisions to organise various types of activities from imposing quarantine measures to check the movement of migrant labours to ensure the continuing of electricity and water supply to build temporary hospitals on open grounds/stadiums. Satellite imagery and the data collected by satellites are coming of great assistance to conduct such activities.
The concept of ‘stay at home’ has led to the closing down of the industrial and farming activity. Also, presently very limited the air, road and rail travels are taking place. All this has resulted in reducing the air pollution levels significantly. Recent satellite inputs are clearly showing the presence of very clean and unpolluted air. Appropriate satellite data should become an input for various mathematical disease spread models and other disease management models. Systems like geographic information systems (GIS) helps to understand the scale of an emergency since critical information is made available in various layers. This allows better logistic planning, coordination and also improve epidemiological surveillance. In addition, tracking of disease outbreak is possible without putting humans at risk.
It is not yet fully established how the weather conditions could impact the spread of coronavirus. There is a view that possibly hot weather conditions, particularly those normally present at the tropical latitudes could break the virus spread. All in all, knowledge about the changing environmental factors such as the temperature, wind, cloud cover and precipitation are very important for epidemic management. Only satellites can provide such information at village, town, country and continent level. Remote sensing satellites can play an important role in monitoring infectious disease outbreaks and would also provide information about possible disease-carrying vectors like insects or rodents. There were some reports about the Hantavirus outbreaks in parts of China along with coronavirus. Satellites could help to monitor such threats.
Telemedicine is one of the unique applications of Space Technology for societal benefit. This facility allows the doctors in smaller towns and villages (with patients seating next to them) with limited expertise to consult the super-specialists in real-time for medical advice. Today, with many states a significant amount of shortages in medical staff are visible, particularly when the hospitals are found been overloaded with the patients. Hence, states should use this facility to the fullest of its potential, if the need arises.
In broad assessment about the situation in a few states could be carried out by undertaking imagery interpretation. Such a situation would arise where intentional or otherwise stoppage to information flow is happening. Few recent satellite imageries over the Middle East region have indicated about the digging of large numbers of graves in some parts of Iran. Obviously, this demonstrates the growing numbers of COVID-19 fatalities in that country. A detailed imagery interpretation also indicates the presence of a large pile of lime in some parts of Iran. Generally, lime gets used to manage odour and decay in human bodies. Experts are also known to be studying satellite imageries covering regions like China and North Korea. All this could help to draw some conclusions about the nature of disasters over there.
Universally, it has been observed that during the period of crisis a lot of innovations and improvisations do take place. Right now, there is no time to design and develop a new satellite system which could exclusively help to monitor the COVID-19 calamity. However, there are numerous satellites already available globally and their services need to be tweaked as per the requirement. Various commutation, navigation, remote sensing and meteorological satellites could be put in good use to address some elements of the crisis.
(Author is a Senior Fellow at MP-IDSA, New Delhi. The views are personal.)