While we are still on lockdown and there is no certainty about when we can safely reopen everything, it is worth reflecting on how we organize our living spaces. COVID-19 is not the first and not the last virus-caused pandemic humanity will have to encounter, and we should be prepared.
Especially we should focus on what improvements can be implemented right away. But first, let’s analyze how the novel coronavirus is spreading.
It appears that viruses travel inside of droplets. Virus particles can’t travel far just in the air. If that were the case, and the virus could be distributed by the ventilation system within the buildings or in public transportation, then the infection rate would be much higher. We don’t see that yet, and therefore we can conclude it is not happening, and we are very fortunate in that case.
It seems that the virus can be transmitted through close contact (3-4 feet, 1-2 meters away) from person to person. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Frequently Asked Questions. Spread.) Also it can be transmitted through surfaces. It has been observed that the virus can live on surfaces in some cases between a few hours and few days. (Source: CDC updates COVID-19 transmission webpage to clarify information about types of spread.)
The challenge is that in a lot of cases, people carry the virus asymptomatically, and they have no idea that they carry a potential threat to the lives of others.
How can we reduce spread?
I can identify 4 levels of control where we can intervene and stop or reduce spread of the virus:
1. Eliminating the source of infection
Efforts could be devoted toward implementing automated virus checks while people come into buildings. We can do automated temperature screens, measure oxygen level in the blood, and implement more potential technologies powered with artificial intelligence (AI) systems to come, which can help with automated and non-invasive testing.
Of course this raises big questions about surveillance, collecting data without people’s consent, and potential discriminatory practices. This is another big conversation we should have.
2. Administrative control
Social distancing – it’s what we are doing right now. And it’s not only a stay-at-home solution. We can also make public spaces less dense. We can put fewer chairs from conference rooms, fewer desks in the offices. Most of the office jobs do not require physical presence. And many manual-labor jobs can be automated.
Of course if we ask people to stay at home, they have to be able to stay at home. First, people should have a home to stay in. To ensure that everyone has a place to stay, we can use rapid 3D printing of the houses and give them to the people who cannot afford to take out a house loan or make a rent payment.
We can see how job markets have shrunk during recent the pandemic, and many people simply cannot afford to stay at home. Pandemic or not, you have basic needs such as food, hygiene, communication, and healthcare. And these needs must be met in order to keep people in a good physical and mental state. I believe that introduction of some form of basic income would be a good solution.
3. Engineering controls
Through engineering tools we can upgrade our spaces without fundamental rebuilding of the infrastructure.
Increasing ventilation rates in the rooms allows one to bring in more outdoor air, and the implementation of personalized ventilation and a personalized exhaust system for airborne infection control can reduce the risk of airborne infection significantly. (Source: Ventilation control for airborne transmission of human exhaled bio-aerosols in buildings. Hua Qian, Xiaohong Zheng. J Thorac Dis. 2018 Jul; 10(Suppl 19): S2295–S2304. doi: 10.21037/jtd.2018.01.24)
Installation of the UV-C light within the ventilation system can clear the airflow from any germs and viruses. (Source: Aerosol Susceptibility of Influenza Virus to UV-C Light. James J. McDevitt, Stephen N. Rudnick, Lewis J. Radonovich, Appl Environ Microbiol. 2012 Mar; 78(6): 1666–1669. doi: 10.1128/AEM.06960-11)
As was mentioned before, viruses can survive on the surfaces for some time and can be transmitted while people touch the surface. Through remote-control technologies we reduce interaction with surfaces to minimum. Light switches, elevator buttons, doors, and other aspects of a building can be controlled through the phone or other devices without direct interaction.
4. Personal protective equipment
This level is especially important during an active pandemic situation. Masks, gloves, and face-protection shields, should be produced in advance, stockpiled so they can be available for the people, especially for essential workers when they need this equipment.
To implement all these preventive measures, we don’t have to invent anything and completely rebuild cities’ infrastructure. All technologies are there; we just need to use them rationally and be willing to invest some time and effort into implementation. In the next article we will look into the future and talk about more radical city planning approaches, such as 3D cities and Arcologies.
Pavel Ilin is Secretary of the United States Transhumanist Party.