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Innovations for a changed world amid COVID-19

Monday, May 25, 2020, 10:11 GMT+7
Innovations for a changed world amid COVID-19
People maintain a safe distance from others while queueing for a ‘rice ATM’ in Hanoi, Vietnam in this undated file photo. Photo: Mai Thuong / Tuoi Tre

Oh, how the creative minds have been bubbling over throughout this dark chapter in world history. They’ve been burning the midnight oil, re-engineering processes and procedures, seeking out ways to streamline and re-invent from scratch.

For decades the emphasis has been on bigger, better, faster, and cheaper, sprinkled with a dash of ongoing improvement.

Without any hint or warning, there’s a new dimension to be reckoned with, and with great urgency, a lot of livelihoods hang in the balance:

Those objectives remain in place: bigger, better, faster, cheaper, but now we need to attain them while being physically further apart or adequately shielded from exposure.  

And if all those challenges aren’t enough, we also need to deliver in a warm and personal way, take care of customers, and demonstrate how we value them.

In some cultures, customers and service providers remain distant, both physically and in their manner of communication, but here in Vietnam the personal touch often prevails - customers want to see what they’re buying and from whom they’re buying, have a little chit chat, feel comfortable, hand over their cash, then go on their way.

Big challenges all around, no doubt. So, what exactly are all those creative minds doing these days? The list of new inventions grows by the day, and for us in Vietnam, here’s the ideal place to begin:

Rice!

Although COVID-19, to date at least, has never gotten a strong foothold in Vietnam, rice is so precious that the government briefly stopped exporting to other countries despite having contracts in place, opting to go the safe way (now isn’t that a shocker), protecting that cornerstone of the food supply at all costs.

We’ve all heard about the ‘Rice ATM,’ invented by Hoang Tuan Anh. Sharing and caring are occurring all over the world, but that Rice ATM is my favorite innovation that has emerged from this crisis, a symbol of how lending a hand is valued here in Vietnam.

CCTV cameras have been installed on each such ATM, but I bet they’re not needed, thanks to everyone rowing the boat in the same direction being so deeply rooted in Vietnamese values.

Another creative coup came in the form of an adaptation of Khac Hung’s hit song ‘Ghen’ (Jealous), echoed around the world after being featured on late night TV shows in the U.S.

The tune was cleverly reworked as an instructional video targeted at citizens, explaining hygiene do’s and don’ts, a clever idea that caught on with kids in no time flat.

This struggle knows no borders, so the ideas and inspirations have been flying in from around the globe:

A Hong Kong concern has a slick box on the market (also available here in Vietnam) that can disinfect a phone and nearly anything that will fit inside in 18 to 30 minutes, and, if that’s not enough, it charges the phone as well. 

Sports is turning to streaming events, but with different twists: world-renowned pole vaulters set up pits in their backyards all over the world and compete with each other using a live feed.

Tennis stars staged matches using Nintendo, raking in over US$1 million which they donated to charity.

Drones have skyrocketed in popularity because they offer a simple way to send something from one location to another without personal contact.

Hard to access remote village squares in Mexico are being disinfected using drones, while Ghana is utilizing them to deliver urgent medical supplies and test samples from outlying rural zones to its capital Accra, covering the 70 kilometers in under one hour.

Even a routine trip to the doctor’s office is now in question, especially given how healthcare resources stretched to the limit all over the world, with many risking infection due to the nature of their work.

I saw a report recently where a patient was able to undergo a consultation via videoconference to the point where the doctor was able to clearly see the patient's tongue and throat.

Doc said “Open wide and say aaaah,” and sure enough, we could see the patients tonsils clearly, even through our TVs. Not a particularly pretty sight, but it was an effective way to handle a routine sore throat and cough. 

In addition to avoiding close proximity, the patient, doctor, and office support staff all saved time and energy.

In India and China, couples have turned to livestreaming of their wedding ceremonies with one event attracting over 100,000 strangers.

It’s an option going forward for sure, especially where travel is challenging, we just need to consider the challenge of virtual wedding night intimacy.

Many of us are not exactly enamored with the idea of someone poking around our mouths and nostrils to conduct COVID-19 tests. Not to worry, animals to the rescue!

A team in France is vigorously training 100 dogs to be able to detect the presence of COVID-19 by sniffing bodies and plans to put them into service at transportation hubs around the country shortly.

Other animals are victims of social distancing, with reports flooding in about lonely zoo critters falling ill and becoming depressed.

Staff in a Tokyo zoo which has been shuttered for months noticed that their eels became lonely and invasive (I’m not making this up), hiding in the sand when the staff approached their aquarium. 

To resolve the situation, video applications on monitors were installed outside the tanks. Staff requested fans to video-call the eels so they could feel a normal human presence just like when the zoo visitors stopped by the tank, and sure enough the eels have perked up considerably.

As cases of the pandemic climbed in Tokyo, authorities moved patients with mild symptoms to hotels under quarantine, a lonely experience by any measure.

Not to worry, robots to the rescue, namely “Whizz” (vacuum-cleaning specialist) and “Pepper” (Jack-of-all-trades) are on duty, delivering food through high-traffic red zones such as the hotel lobby, cleaning, and cracking a few jokes from time to time (I made that last part up, but no doubt that too will become a reality some day).

What’s going on in Vietnam besides a free rice machine and a cute song?

Before COVID-19 was ever heard of, the world needed an effective, biodegradable mask. What’s plentiful here that meets the need? 

Coffee! 

Vietnam is the second-largest producer in the world, behind only Brazil, so no shortage of the needed supplies.

A local company has developed the AirX mask using coffee fiber which blocks particulate matter and may be washed and reused. 

All told, Vietnam has exported hundreds of millions of face masks to countries all over the world, and that’s only one critical item.

Rapid COVID-19 test kits have also been invented and produced here, with orders received from over 20 countries and shipments of one million kits per month now starting. 

Vietnam has also developed high-tech applications in several areas.

The Institute for Preventive Medicine and Public Health (IPMPH) under Hanoi Medical University has developed an early warning application that predicts COVID-19 infection trends and hotspots.

The system analyzes population density, current and past cases, deaths, mobility of the population, all on both national and international levels. A shrewd investment for the future.

The Ministry of Information and Communications is urging migration to heavier use of cashless payments, web development, and e-commerce in order to stay away from a ‘cash on the counter’ mentality.

Banks are chipping in by slashing fees for electronic payments and other transfers, but there is much work to do.

National Geographic recently published an incredible virtual tour of Son Doong Cave here in Vietnam, the largest in the world.

The tour is named Son Doong 360, featuring ‘Google-style’ walking tours managed by pointing arrows, descriptions of points of interest, and detailed maps which can also direct viewers to specific features, all in high resolution for the utmost in realism.

The Guardian has put that tour in its top ten worldwide.

None of these innovations involve new, revolutionary technology — drones, videoconferencing apps, and robotics have been around for years, so what’s suddenly changed?

Our behavior has changed because of the severity and urgency of the situation, otherwise progress would plod along at a snail’s pace.

Suddenly, it’s critical to disinfect that remote town square using a drone, leverage robots to deliver and clean, as well as talk, teach, treat patients, and entertain by video application.

All the new solutions we could possibly need are right under our noses, we just need to get those creative juices flowing and implement them.

Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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