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The Big Health Issue: Covid-19 apps, tests, ventilators and vaccines

Life under lockdown and how to save lives: engineering and technology in the time of pandemic

Can you guess where I’m writing this? Is it a) our magazine’s office in Hertfordshire, b) on a flight to a weekend festival of live music, food and drink in California, or c) the cupboard under our stairs? Yes, as important as I would like to think magazine journalism is, I don’t count as a key, essential, frontline worker so the office is closed, the holidays are cancelled, the kids are home from college and school and we’re all jostling for working space in our small London home. Most of our readers will be managing under similar restrictions. We’re all happy to stay at home to help the NHS and slow the spread of the virus of course, but it looks like it’s going to be this way for a few months now.

The lockdowns around the world are going to take their toll on the global economy, and the impact of Covid-19 on engineering and technology industries is something we’ll be analysing in our next issue. But this issue is all about what difference science, engineering and technology can make in the current crisis, and what you and your colleagues are doing to help. It’s all about the priority right now: saving lives. 

We find out how researchers model outbreaks like Covid-19 - and why they obtain different results. We see how manufacturers are trying to produce more ventilators. We ask how on earth the health service is going to get enough kits to hit its 100,000 target for tests by the end of the month. And we look at the longer-term solution of developing a vaccine for this novel virus. Looking further into the future, how will digital doctors help? And can robot nurses provide the care that Florence Nightingale, born two centuries ago next month, originally envisioned for the first nurses? Data is more important than ever in ward care, but Nightingale was in fact the original medical data analyst.

The health authorities want more data now, to track the virus and to help with social distancing. Ben Heubl asks if that means giving up privacy, as apps in other countries have done, and ponders how much and for how long? He also examines patterns in health misinformation, from 5G lies to false cures, to work out who’s spreading it and why. He then tries to cheer himself up with a Netflix Party, with mixed results.

This Big Health Issue is about more health issues than the pandemic issue of the moment. We also cover technology to tackle mental illness, whatever happened to DNA medicinehardware for thought control and much more. 

For the foreseeable future, we’ll be producing the magazine from our desks in sheds, spare bedrooms or under the stairs. Our only taste of the outside world is our Zoom virtual backgrounds, which perhaps reveal where we’d like to be. Is that on the beach, in a pub or at the match? Or is it in the Concorde cockpit, Bletchley Park Hut 8 or the Apollo 11 control room? We can dream.

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