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Geospatial to protect our global village

The world is changing before our eyes — and it is not the way we planned. In December 2019, there was a news about a new zoonotic virus that had emerged, possibly from a wet Market in Wuhan, China. It proved to be a new Coronavirus that jumped from the animal world to humans. It has happened before — Bird Flu (2003), Ebola (2004), Swine Flu (2009), MERS (2012) and SARS (2002-2004) — but this was new. Termed the Novel Coronavirus 2019, it demonstrated its virulence in China, before jumping to other countries of the world. With no vaccine in sight and no medicines either, country after country did the only thing possible — shutdown and lockdown.

The implications are immense. With the industry grinding to a halt, goods are running out and jobs are being lost. The service industry has collapsed. Transport lockdown means that farm output cannot reach the cities, and this directly affects perishables. Agricultural income is down as a result, raising questions like “how will these people pay for inputs like seeds and fertilizer”, or “how will they afford loan EMI and insurance premium”? We are staring at a slowdown in food production. Recession is just not staring us in the face, it is upon us.

In this situation, what can geospatial do? There are reports of the use of location-based services, satellite data and analytics to track the spread of the infection and to track infected individuals more often than not, by throwing privacy to the winds. Unusual times call for unusual methods. However, these are post facto actions and they will, to some extent, map the damage, and that information may help in the recovery.
But recovery is not going to be easy. Given that this is not the last of the pandemics, the bigger issue will be how to better address future infections and nip any pandemic in the bud. It will be a long haul and it will never be business as usual because the usual has ceased to exist. As it can be seen, in the 21st century alone, we have had six pandemics in 20 years.

One of the biggest issues is going to be changes in the healthcare models. In an episode of TED Talks just after the Ebola pandemic, Bill Gates had suggested the need for a healthcare system as efficient as the defense system. This was in 2009, and clearly his words have fallen on deaf ears. Geospatial systems need to create a C4ISR model for healthcare. This implies that healthcare cannot be outsourced, or funding cut down to serve “other needs”. In these times, it is only the government that can support this activity as much as it supports defense activities.

The second program that will be imperative is the maintenance and strengthening of the food supply chain from farm to table. Governments have to provide the initial support to enable the farm sector to recover. This is another area where geospatial has demonstrated its prowess but remains on the sidelines as an inventory solution. The use of data analytics in conjunction with spatial data will be the need of the hour for planning and monitoring farm activities. Such information can also be used for financing of loans and determining insurance cover.

Better transportation planning and storage is needed to reduce crop losses and achieve better distribution through efficient use of population data. In this context, the efforts towards population grid needs to be strengthened.

Climate Change has been a bone of contention between scientists and administrators. The satellite imagery evidence showing lowering of pollution over countries in lockdown and anecdotes with images of wildlife reclaiming their habitat needs to be studied in greater detail as they offer a unique opportunity. There is a need to apply analytics to study these phenomena to establish the effect of anthropogenic activity and to look at how these can be regulated in the future.

The world has been talking of sustainable development which do address many of these issues. The present pandemic simply illustrates that time is running out for the world. Dreamers may talk of colonizing Mars but the fact is that the Blue Dot is the only home we have and will have for many years to come. It is fashionable to talk of the global village. The time has come to take care of the village and geospatial has to be one of the significant tolls towards this.

Also Read: COVID-19 triggers debate for self-reliant societies – adding new dimension to global sustainability