His beloved metaphor is that of a fire passing through a village. The stage that the flames burst through the roofs is behind us but the fire is still smouldering here and there. Are you going to walk among the ruins with a gas mask and fatalistically accept that the fire may just reignite? Or are you going to search for the last embers and put them out as well?
Professor of Telecommunications Networks (EWI) Piet van Mieghem doesn’t need to think about it for long. “Instead of surrendering in defeat to a ‘new normal', our healthy ambitious strategy should be to return to the ’old normal’, a world without corona.” A world of festivals, music, pubs and touch. How long ago that seems.
With this intention in his head, Van Mieghem responded last week to the Delta article The old normal will not come back. “I keep wondering at how quickly people have given up the old normal and have adapted to a sub-optimal one-and-a-half metre society under corona.” Van Mieghem believes in extinguishing the virus with technology. He mails: ‘It would suit the TU Delft as a technology knowledge paradise to throw all its technologies together to try to defeat Covid-19. I miss this goal politically everywhere. Instead, there is resignation and surrender to the Corona beast.’
“To loosely translate a Dutch saying, ‘measuring is knowing’,” begins Van Mieghem, who attributes the saying to the great Dutch engineer Cornelis Lely (others believe that Albert Einstein, Lord Kelvin or Kamerlingh Onnes first made that statement). What is certain is that today’s technology enables us to measure many more things and measure them better than a few decades ago. Now that the big flames have been extinguished, it is time to find and extinguish the small fires. In terms of corona: to detect new infections as soon as possible and put the carriers in mandatory quarantine. What makes corona detection extra complicated are the symptom-free carriers; they don't feel sick, but they do spread the virus. These ‘silent killers’ must also be detected.
Van Mieghem would preferably do this search at all levels at the same time: national, local, neighbourhood, street and individual. At the municipal level, sewage has been proven to be a fast and sensitive indicator of the presence of the coronavirus, Professor of Water & Health Gertjan Medema told Radio 1. “Because the virus is present in your body for a longer period of time before you become ill, the sewer tests are ahead of the RIVM figures,” he said. He also said that he wanted to extend testing upstream to district level.
How the virus spreads from the district level may be deduced from telecom data that keep track of who is within range of a particular transmitter mast, and where that person is going. That data is independent of apps that users may or may not have installed. Users’ phone numbers are encrypted so that their movements are anonymised. What remains is data showing how many people from which areas may have been infected (even while no one may be displaying symptoms yet).
A much-discussed contact app can translate population data to an individual level. Van Mieghem would like to see people who are at risk according to the analyses, regularly asked to report on their health. If there is reason to do so, they should be tested for the virus and in case of infection, put under treatment.
According to a recent survey, only one third of Dutch people are willing to install a contact app. Van Mieghem is not distracted by this finding. The contact app got off to an unfortunate start with a hackathon that yielded hundreds of apps, all of which were rejected, and the Government subsequently developed one itself. That same Government of the tax benefits affair ((a recent scandal in which the Government falsely accused recipients of child benefits of fraud, eds.). That didn't instil much confidence either.
Van Mieghem bemoans the false start, because contact apps are in principle an excellent support mechanism for research into the spread of the virus. “People fear for their privacy, but they are standing in the way of a return to a normal society. The greatest merit of a contact app is not the individual, but public health. If we all use the app for a month or two, we can eradicate the virus.”
Together with a handful of PhD students, Van Mieghem is trying to prove that a combination of sewage monitoring, laboratory tests, telephone network data and apps will make it possible to defeat the coronavirus.
If that works, not only theoretically but also in practice, we could go back to the cosy old normal. As is already the case in New Zealand. ‘Under new rules, social distancing is not required and there are no limits on public gatherings, but borders remain closed to foreigners,’ writes the BBC.