COVID-19 and the Transdisciplinary Future of Disease Governance

A premortem of the emerging post-pandemic period and a postmortem of the pre-pandemic phase are worthy pursuits for systems thinkers.

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The highly infectious COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the important topic of disease governance as well as the research and policy issues accompanying it. Effective disease governance has strong spatio-temporal dimensions. A premortem of the emerging post-pandemic era and a postmortem of the pre-pandemic phase is not just a good idea, but the irreducible minimum to which progressive world leaders must face up. Three areas remain critical to achieving the desired transformation: education, research, and healthcare.

Promoting transdisciplinary research at the interface of geomatics and health sciences has become more crucial than ever. Geomatics combines traditional and modern aspects of surveying and mapping including airborne and spaceborne technologies, essentially using location-based data (spatial data) to deliver accurate and precise metrics for decision support. To live up to their raison d’être as the foremost disease detectives, modern medical epidemiologists should draw actionable intelligence from geomatics to combat infectious diseases and protect communities against exposure risks. Geomedicine particularly emerges strongly in this case, being a new field that utilises the spatial intelligence extracted from the environment using terrestrial, airborne and satellite-based navigation and mapping technologies to enhance solutions to individual and public health.

Tracing the roots of a borderless knowledge culture

John Wheeler’s renowned quote goes, “Space-time tells matter how to move; matter tells space-time how to curve.” Rightfully, Johannes Kepler enthusiastically described mathematics as the language of rational order in creation. Michael Faraday, among the few who Albert Einstein recognised, only received 13 years of formal education then accomplished the rest under homeschooling and apprenticeship as a bookbinder. Thomas Bayes was a Presbyterian pastor, but to date, he is better known for statistics, Bayes Theorem. Isaac Newton was a professor in natural philosophy, an expanded study of nature and the physical universe, but he is today better known for mathematics and physics. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a polymath, spoke many languages and made key contributions in mathematics, physics, logic, ethics, and theology. Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss, a wunderkind — child prodigy — was a prominent mathematician and physicist.

What can we learn from these personalities? Love for knowledge as a virtue was the common denominator for these timeless legends. They did not identify themselves as “exclusive subject owners” who erect boundaries and are reluctant to seek opinion from other disciplines as we do witness among today’s intelligentsia. To almost equal depths, they were immersed in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, history, and the service of humanity through various occupations. Who are their equivalent today? They must be the liberated minds which embrace systems thinking to understand the non-linear, dynamic and irreducible interactions in nature. Education in the post-pandemic era needs to reclaim its lost glory and intrinsic meaning as a lifelong commitment to the pursuit of progressive knowledge and liberating truth.

The world must face up to the original fact of nature. Our brains were not created to have subject boundaries. These imaginary disciplinary boundaries are self-imposed by our prejudices and conditioned loss of curiosity as we grow up, making us miss out on the simple definition of every great scientist and innovator as a grown-up child — in terms of childlike curiosity, of course.

The time for a liberating reset is now. It is the time for a reset of mindsets to rediscover the original virgin and unbridled curiosity about discoveries that transform lives. Henceforth, post-pandemic leadership must be proactive, evolving from reactionary responses using isolated disciplinary tools to predictive risk management applying integrated and multi-stakeholder approaches.

Understanding nature and complex challenges

Our understanding of nature cannot be divorced from the four mysteries of the cosmos: light, gravity, space, and time. A look at the sun, a near star, is a view of about nine minutes of history, and millions of years of history for distant stars. The concept of space and time, from which we derive the term “spatial” and “temporal” respectively, together form the fundamental space-time or “spatio-temporal” philosophy for abstracting, organising, perceiving, and interpreting the world. Tracing the origin of disease outbreaks efficiently and effectively requires location-based intelligence, hence the application of geospatial and space technologies.

Why does water seem to flow uphill in Kituluni, Kenya? Geodesy, a sub-discipline of geomatics, has the answer. How does Uber service locate you and the driver so precisely? How does your car navigator estimate your arrival time adaptively as the variables of the road condition, traffic situation, driving speed, stops along the way, among others, come into play? Walking around the German parliament buildings (Bundestag), a pocket narrator immerses you in a flawless location-based description of your immediate surroundings. Walk faster and it will fast-forward to retrieve the story matching your new position, sharing with you the relevant directions as well.

At the core of these solutions that have profoundly transformed life, work, and play through civilisations is the applied science of measurements, geometry, positioning, navigation and mapping, which underpin geomatics. Geomatics combines traditional and modern aspects of surveying and mapping including airborne and spaceborne technologies, essentially using location-based data (spatial data) to deliver accurate and precise metrics which are critical to demarcating land and property boundaries for registering ownership rights (cadastral surveys); land administration; land use planning; engineering and construction projects; positioning and navigation on, below or above land and water; and providing actionable location-based intelligence in aid of planning, management and monitoring assignments for business, public and civil society sectors. In an era when decision support increasingly demands Geographic Information Systems (GIS), big data and reliable real-world information from satellites, these application areas are gaining currency and prominence.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0) continues to push the boundaries of precision for data-driven decision making. Modern-day sensors and computing technologies, a digital revolution that can handle vast databases of geographically referenced data, have advanced the interdisciplinary practice of geomatics. The science of positioning and navigation has inspired key developments in new health-related subjects such as cognitive neuroscience, computational neuroscience, security and warfare intelligence, precision agriculture, smart transportation, smart mining, among others.

Though facts on fighting COVID-19 lend their provenance to the domain of health sciences, solving the attendant long-term challenges must draw on political, technological, social and economic decisions that transcend the province of medical practice. COVID-19 has made more compelling the case for transdisciplinary collaboration towards finding solutions to the common and urgent problems facing humanity today. This cross-fertilisation of disciplines is critical to progressive research and innovation. Unlike mechanical problems that are amenable to deterministic models, disease governance is a stochastic challenge in the turbulent sea of complex, resurgent and adaptive social environments.

The health-geomatics interface

Have you ever described a dream as distant, a claim as far-fetched, or a judgement as sloping? Life is full of such spatial metaphors. Daily, we perceive and interpret distance and direction in our physical and mental worlds. The quality of a nation’s healthcare system is a critical strand in the fabric of life and livelihoods. The 1854 discovery by Dr John Snow in London of the cause of cholera was a triumph of mapping techniques. The 2014 Nobel prize in Medicine or Physiology recognised the key finding that the brain has grid cells and place cells, an “inner GPS” which maps out space by encoding coordinates to guide memory and navigation.

Like the presently ravaging COVID-19 pandemic, many diseases demonstrate a close nexus between peopleplace, and time. Where we live determines the air, water, soil, and the communities we interact with routinely. As already written about widely by Bill Davenhall of Esri, there exist certain chronic health conditions that are far removed from genotype and lifestyle, leaving environmental factors as the most convincing explanation. Effective disease governance, therefore, has strong spatio-temporal dimensions. To live up to their raison d’être as the foremost disease detectives, modern medical epidemiologists should draw actionable intelligence from Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to combat infectious diseases and protect communities against exposure risks.

Geomedicine is an emerging field. It utilises the spatial intelligence extracted from the environment using technologies such as terrestrial, airborne and satellite-based navigation and mapping to enhance solutions to individual and public health. Medical diagnostic experience has traditionally been an enterprise rich in keeping the records of a patient’s medical history. To date, the medical records have been lean on the health-geography interface. This state of affairs denies clinicians access to the expanding pool of location-based intelligence they need to tap into for a more precise clinical understanding of the links between patients’ health and where they live, work, and play.

Various kinds of diagnosis and prognosis, as well as preventive and predictive healthcare, stand to gain from geospatial technologies. Using modern information technology to map at scale and deliver geomedical informatics and intelligence on a patient’s potential exposure risks to diseases in the living environment, geomedicine can empower modern clinicians to improve the quality and quantity of diagnostic results and strategic interventions, which is a key requirement for combating disease outbreaks.

Health is too important a sector to be left out of the mainstream of innovations availed by the emerging Fourth Industrial Revolution. COVID-19 only makes this call more compelling. The future of healthcare and disease governance grows brighter with predictive mapping, supported by the Internet, sensors, big data, automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI). With these developments, telemedicine can be assured of reaching a saturation level in the rapidly evolving technology marketplace.

Nashon J. Adero

Nashon, a geospatial expert, lecturer and trained policy analyst applies dynamic models to complex adaptive systems. He is a youth mentor on career development and the founder of Impact Borderless Digital.