No I don’t have the coronavirus, and anyways that’s not the problem

The real problem of a contagious virus isn’t the virus; its that our public spaces are too contagious. It’s time for a no-touch revolution.

Karlsson vom Dach
Jan 28, 2020 · 3 min read

Yes I’m in China, no I’m not in Wuhan, and no, I don’t have the coronavirus. But the news has people around Shanghai on edge. While a usual New Years celebration would be filled with public festivities, now people religiously stay inside to minimize their exposure. In neighboring Suzhou, most buses are empty, and on my few trips outside I failed to spot someone without a face mask (the illness is respiratory). On the road Suzhou to Shanghai, we queue to have temperatures of all passangers checked. Police walk by the cars to single out Hubei and Wuhan license plates for additional screening.

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The people in hazmat suits are checking temperatures, and if you think it’s some high tech sensor from the future, you might be disappointed when it goes in your ear.

Over dinner, conversations gravitate back to the news out of Wuhan: the latest number of infected alongside pictures on social media of wedding parties wearing face masks. But to remind us that the threat is real, the vacations of relatives who are doctors have been cut short, as they are to remain on call should the numbers increase.

If it is not contained, the virus could spread globally. But it’s not really the virus that’s the problem; it’s the fact that we are too exposed in public places. New Years sees mass human migration waves, but even beyond that, decades of urbanization have left us vulnerable, packed into cities often too close for comfort.

If all the current fear is to teach us anything, it’s not that “killer viruses will murder as all”, nor that “we should all develop OCD about germs” (although the second one probably helps). Rather: “why aren’t we more dedicated to creating innovations that reduce the spread of diseases in public spaces?”

In the first days of the outbreak, people in supermarkets all over China fought over the last remaining face masks — or if lucky, had relatives deliver them from abroad. But if our best bet to stay healthy still relies on wearing disposable masks at all times, then it really shows how little technological advances have reduced our exposure in public places. Even for technologies that do exist, the risk we face today clearly shows that we are not implementing them consistently.

Pressing a button in the elevator is now a chore, because it means wiping your hands with a disinfecting wipe. Why can’t it be touch-free — maybe voice operated? “Five please”.

At the supermarket, an attendant wipes down handles of cart before handing them out. Why touch them at all? It doesn’t even have to be online orders that completely replace shopping for groceries in person. Imagine walking through the store and scanning items with you phone, before a robotic system grabs them for you from a warehouse at the end (similar to the job of grocers a century earlier, but now for different reasons).

In public bathrooms we wash our hands with no-touch faucets, soap from no-touch soap dispensers, dispense paper towels by waving our hands, only to have grab the door handle on the way out. We’ve all seen foot-operated door handles — why aren’t they everywhere?

Food preparation conditions for one have always been rightfully criticized in China. Perhaps the future, before picking a restaurant, we will browse photos of the sanitary conditions of the kitchen in addition to the food. Public shaming can go a long way and affect business; in smartphone-obsessed China, the opportunity for improvement is there.

Even when (if?) the virus is contained, the current scare will linger for years. But it also points out an opportunity for innovation: to improve how we interact with public spaces. The winner here will not be a single technology, but a compound of many improvements. The economic benefits alone should be a compelling enough reason. Cancelled flights in and out of China are the new norm now, even more so than before. But at least driving on the highway in Shanghai got easier — for a city of over 20 million people, there’s barely any cars today.

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