Blockchain for Crisis

April 2020
With the current pandemic sweeping the world, many are asking what could have been done to prevent it and what measures might be put in place to stop a similar situation from happening again in the future.

There have been arguments for all manner of things, from laws against live or ‘wet’ food markets to permanently changing the way we live our everyday lives. Whilst each one may have its merits and drawbacks, there exists a possible way forward which enables the issue at hand to be avoided whilst minimising the potential for disruption and restrictive measures. This solution may not be likely to be implemented in the near future but it bears serious consideration.

With the coronavirus, Covid-19, one of the main issues that has faced those attempting to slow its spread is that, in a world where travel is so frequent and people move and live in such close proximity, it is very difficult to identify and isolate those who are infected and who risk transmitting the virus to others. One person travelling from an infected area comes into contact with many others and spreads the virus, causing the exponential growth of cases and, ultimately, deaths, that are being seen in so many countries. It is particularly difficult in the case of Covid-19 due to the fact that many people may carry it yet be asymptomatic, and that even when infected, symptoms may take some time to show. With the technology on hand, it becomes almost impossible to track all the people who have been to infected areas and alert them to the danger in time, allowing them to self-isolate until testing can confirm whether they are infected or not. If the possible spread of infection could be identified and dealt with efficiently and quickly, the current pandemic, and potential future ones like it, could be halted before they even begin.  

Using the right technology, the tracking of locations and notifications to those at risk of spreading infection could all be done whilst maintaining privacy. Whilst people are willing to hand governments more control when needed in a crisis, the worry is that their rights will be infringed afterwards. This maintenance of privacy is not just important for tracking individuals, but also for possibilities such as reporting signs of infection when countries or governments want to cover up infection rates. In fact, having a non-government controlled solution would put many people at ease.    

Another goal of a real solution to the issue of pandemics would be to implement cross-border initiatives. When travel is such a key part of day to day life, interoperability of the solution is essential. A global approach is the only one that makes sense to stop a pandemic spreading. Viruses do not respect borders - why would the prevention technique?

Of course, blockchain technology could supply these answers. Developments such as zero-knowledge proofs and homomorphic encryption would allow for communication and reporting between massive amounts of individuals whilst maintaining privacy. Indeed, measures are already being taken to ensure that data privacy is not compromised by those looking to slow or halt the spread of Covid-19. OpenMined is a group of thousands of engineers, researchers, writers, and developers collaborating to enable the development of apps and solutions to tackle the pandemic whilst protecting users personal data privacy. Moreover, blockchain is a global and borderless technology. It is decentralised - not government controlled. It fits all the criteria for providing a platform for world-wide collaboration free of a controlling political influence; however, there would have to be a way of ensuring the system was able to identify people and objects in the system - one that users could easily interact with. An identity verification app on a mobile device would serve in this regard, and an expansion of Blockpass could be utilised in this very manner, allowing people to very simply report on their conditions and receive notifications in response.  

The possibilities don’t stop at simply preventing the spread of a virus or disease though. Many problems are being caused in the current pandemic by people who panic buy, but also by the inefficiencies of allocating resources where they can best be used in a timely manner. 

Using a blockchain-based solution and with an identity for everything enabled through Blockpass, supply chains and deliveries could be managed in such a way that the resources would be directed to wherever needed them most. This could range from hospital beds and ventilators or other essential equipment being distributed appropriately, to the automated delivery of essential medicines, food supplies and toiletries to those with symptoms who are in quarantine, whether self-imposed or enforced. Similarly, systems could be put in place to ensure people were not panic-buying. Having a reasonable limit placed on what one person might be expected to buy when shopping could prevent the situation where supermarket stocks of essentials such as bread and toilet paper are depleted by a few inconsiderate people. These systems could be tailored to allow one person to buy supplies for groups of many for those who shop on behalf of others such as with careers in nursing homes or those who look after vulnerable people. Importantly, it would maintain the user’s privacy whilst ensuring people’s behaviour did not adversely affect others.    

Allowing for stigma- and consequence-free reporting and tracking of infections, fast and efficient allocation of resources and preventing people from making situations worse are just some of the possibilities that a blockchain-based solution with a robust and flexible identity verification and management system could achieve. Further solutions could be developed to assist with global research for cures, provision of services to those whose lives are temporarily disrupted, and many other areas. These solutions will be embraced one day and will save thousands of lives in the process. It’s only a matter of time before blockchain and its potential reaches critical mass and spreads to all parts of the world more fully than any virus could hope to.