Engineers are some of the hidden heroes of COVID-19

By Mary Wells

What would our shelter-in-place COVID-19 experiences be like in Canada without engineering technology advancements such as smart phones, Zoom, Amazon or Netflix? What would the mortality outcomes of COVID-19 be without technology advances in health care that have allowed us to decode the novel coronavirus genome in a month, access geospatial information systems to help pinpoint areas of infection and the use of ventilators to treat critical patients?

Engineers are some of the people behind these technological developments; their role in society is to connect scientific and technical knowledge to societal needs. Although engineers are not the frontline medical responders who put their lives at risk each day in our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, they are some of our hidden heroes whose work is critical to support people both as they endure this pandemic as well as save people’s lives in this race against time. 

Because of these technological advances, we are more equipped now than in any other era to respond to a pandemic.

During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, there was neither a cure nor a vaccine for the disease nor the ability to manage the undertaking of mandatory quarantine or self-isolation. Lacking the technology we have today, there was no way to curb the spread of the Spanish flu, which killed more than 50 million people and caused more than 500 million infections worldwide.

In 1918 there were very few cars, no highways, no air travel. In terms of communication, there were limited telephones and people relied primarily on newspapers, leaflets and the radio to receive information. Typically, a white scarf tied to a door of a house was a sign to alert the community that there was a virus residing within.

Any mention of the tragedy that was unfolding was avoided and people had little knowledge of either the numbers of people who succumbed to the Spanish flu or the extent that it infected people globally until much later, after it was over, and the numbers were counted.

In 1918, the return of soldiers from the war fronts, the migration of refugees and the mobility of women engaged in “extra-domestic” activities favoured the rapid spread of the virus.

Today, airplanes and high-speed trains are ubiquitous and allow people to move over large distances in short periods of time. These many dimensions of modern society have made us dramatically more connected to each other, more than at any other time in human history. But the magnitudes of inter-connectedness are also what has made us considerably more vulnerable to a pandemic.

Today, in Canada, most of us have smart phones that make it possible for everyone (from teenagers to adults) to access and generate information in real time and personally witness the heartbreak that is occurring as COVID-19 unfolds both across the globe but also in our local communities. 

Self-isolation in 1918 was a much lonelier experience than it is today. Lacking communication technologies, people suffered the 1918 pandemic largely in private without the support of friends and neighbors and with little to entertain them and take their minds off their constant struggle.

Unlike 1918, today, robots, designed by engineers, are at the frontlines, working alongside health care professionals to prepare meals at hospitals, treat patients and spray disinfectants to clean surfaces. Today, with the help of data analytics and predictive models, medical professionals are able to understand more about COVID-19 including the environmental and geographical details that are germane to the disease as well as the people who are most at risk.

Today, diagnostic tools to effectively screen large populations are under development using AI-powered systems that can help identify people who might be infected and who they have been in contact with. All of these, and many more, are technology developments that are helping to manage and control COVID-19 that were not available in 1918 during the Spanish flu.

After this pandemic is over, many high school students will start to imagine what career they would like to pursue in the future. Many will remember with well-deserved admiration, the important, self-sacrificing and lifesaving roles our health care workers and first responders played in putting their own lives at risk to get us through the COVID-19 pandemic and aspire to become members of these professions. However, let’s not forget the engineers, our hidden heroes, whose work has, and will continue, to help tremendously to support these frontline workers in our society’s ability to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure we are much better prepared to face future pandemics.

Mary Wells is the Dean for the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Guelph and the incoming Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, July 1st, 2020.

Header Photo: compilation from UnSplash