Beneficial Uses of Blockchain & Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT) in the Battle Against COVID-19
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Note from editor: This article is a work in progress and subject to changes. Originally posted 18/03/2020, last edit on 27/03/2020
As nation states and organizations are engaged in ongoing efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, blockchain & distributed ledger technologies (DLT) are increasingly finding a place in a number of efforts to assist individuals, institutions and business entities around the world.
Greece is one of the countries that have responded in a sober yet decisive manner amidst the outbreak of COVID-19 on the level of mitigating the spread of the virus and regulating behavior and unfair commercial practices through a. regulations and b. implementations of the existing technological infrastructures. However, it is arbitrary whether existing infrastructures in Greece and most of the EU, can provide sufficient support against the invisible enemy as several EU leaders have characterized COVID-19.
This article attempts to explore several areas of social and economic life where societies could be further benefited from the utilization of blockchain technologies. It does so by merely pointing at examples of entrepreneurs and legislatures promoting uses of blockchain technologies at the aftermath of COVID-19’s outbreak.
The argument here is that regulations (no matter how good they are) may be incomplete or insufficient when supported by outdated technological infrastructures. A symbiosis between advanced code (blockchains in particular) and laws promoting that code, may result in further promoting societies’ welfare and governments’ efficiency.
Below, we list several types of existing state structures and aspects of economic life that have been heavily tested during the outbreak of COVID-19, along with examples of blockchain technology solutions that could come handy to businesses, nation states and their structures to the end goal of preserving and -most importantly- promoting public values and public health.
1. Supply of Medical Materials
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and upon reaching the EU, a mixture of panic and unfair trading practices led to prices for medical supplies such as masks, antiseptic liquids, gels and tissues being raised. The Greek government responded swiftly with recent Legislative Acts and Ministerial Decisions where businesses would now be obliged to disclose and officially report their stock to the Hellenic Ministry of Development and Investments, in an effort to make it easier for the national healthcare system and the general public to gain access to these goods.
Blockhain & Supply Chains: In China the same problem existed since the outbreak of COVID-19. Masks had been scarce and hard to source. It is important to note that medical materials supply chain tracking was one of the biggest challenges for Chinese regulators. According to Cointelegraph, a news blog on blockchain technology and cryptocurrency on the 4th of March 2020 (Cointelegraph Consulting, 2020, Blockchain as a tool to combat Coronavirus, viewed on the 18th of May 2020, https://cointelegraph.com/news/blockchain-as-a-tool-to-combat-coronavirus):
“Alipay, along with the Zhejiang Provincial Health Commission and the Economy and Information Technology Department…launched a blockchain-based platform that enables users to trace the demand and the supply chains of medical supplies. This included the recording and tracking of epidemic prevention materials, such as masks, gloves and other protective gear.”
The author goes on to point out:
“While it is probably too late to implement major changes, the coronavirus has proven that the medical supply chain remains an area with a legitimate need for blockchain provenance solutions. Around the world, steady progress is being made to increase the connectivity of health care infrastructure. Last year in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration approved a multi-state pilot to use blockchain technology to track medication shipments and usage in North Carolina, Indiana and Tennessee. The goal was to improve supply chain monitoring and quality control while providing data for more targeted inventory and recall management.”
2. Supply of Food & Consumables
Supermarkets and businesses in the food sector also seemed to face a disruption with panicking customers in certain countries emptying shelves. In Greece the situation was milder while -at the same time-authorities reassured the general public that supplies are sufficient for at least three months (with continuous supply flowing in order to ensure this is always the case), advising the general public to demonstrate composure. At the same time, through the deployment of Legislative Acts and corresponding Ministerial Decisions the government has extended opening times and days for supermarkets while allowing the supply chain to remain fully operative during a period that most businesses’ operations are suspended.
Businesses in the food sector (cafes, restaurants) are also allowed to offer delivery services to consumers.
Blockchain tracking of supplies and demand for goods could similarly benefit the food services industry and shift focus and attention to where it would be required.
Furthermore, using blockchain technologies to transfer ownership of goods while recording permissions and activity logs so as to track the flow of goods and services between businesses and across borders would allow transparency as well as accountability and more efficient quality control.
Accountability is important and does offer many benefits for consumers and businesses. To this end, in 2016, IBM and Walmart partnered to put Chinese pork to blockchain enhancing food safety and offering end-to-end traceability (Robert Hackett, 2016, Walmart and IBM Are Partnering to Put Chinese Pork on a Blockchain, Fortune magazine, viewed on the 18th of March 2020, https://fortune.com/2016/10/19/walmart-ibm-blockchain-china-pork/).It follows that a wider implementation of blockchain technologies in tracking supplies will only benefit businesses and consumers and create trust, transparency and accountability.
3. Improving Healthcare Services and Responses while protecting Privacy:
EU countries’ health systems are looking for new ways to deal with the mitigation of the spread of COVID-19. New initiatives including drive-through testing and hotlines are among the solutions proposed within the European territory and the rest of the world.
These are clear cases where striking a balance between privacy and confidentiality vs protecting public interest (on the grounds of public health protection) may be an extremely cumbersome task. Lines between the two cannot not be clearly drawn. GDPR offers exceptions to data protection but there are trade offs between public health and private data as there are cases where one may have to be sacrificed in favor of the other.
COVID-19 ‘s outbreak exacerbates this problem and aspects of the issue have been discussed by Ioannis Valmas’ article here.
Blockchain & Privacy: China is one of the early adopters of Blockchain technology acknowledging that blockchain systems can securely manage health records, ensuring interoperability without compromising security and patient privacy.
This was the case in Xi’an, northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, where a system for online consultation and screening was launched on Feb. 1.
According to a report on the 17th of February from People’s Daily (People’s Daily, Blockchain technology improves coronavirus response, viewed on the 18th of March 2020, People’s Daily, http://en.people.cn/n3/2020/0217/c90000-9658792.html):
“Blockchain technology — using encrypted data and records to track transactions — has been helping Chinese government and medical agencies in the battle against the novel coronavirus without compromising privacy. From Feb. 1 to 14, at least 20 applications based on blockchain were launched to tackle the emerging challenges.”
According to the same report, Blockchain technology was also applied in the official daily updates about the epidemic in the Jinan, Shandong Province.
On its final remarks the article goes on to report that among local authorities implementing blockchain technologies there is a consensus that blockchain: “makes information on the platform tamper-proof and traceable. It achieves precise collection of epidemic data and dispels rumors, helping citizens to cope with the epidemic in a positive and reasonable way.”Acoer, developer of blockchain-enabled applications, announced on the 3rd of February, that it is helping its healthcare and life sciences clients to easily track and visualize the Coronavirus outbreak with its HashLog data visualization engine. Built to interact in real-time with Hedera Hashgraph, an enterprise-grade distributed public ledger, the Coronavirus HashLog dashboard allows researchers, scientists, and journalists to easily understand the spread of the virus and trends over time, from a wide set of public data, including data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Mance Harmon, CEO of Hedera Hashgraph stated according to PR Newswire (PR Newswire, 2020, CDC and WHO’s Coronavirus Data Now Searchable Via Acoer, Powered by Hedera Hashgraph, Hedera Hashgraph, viewed on the 18th of March 2020, https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/cdc-and-whos-coronavirus-data-now-searchable-via-acoer-powered-by-hedera-hashgraph-300997822.html): “Healthcare and public health is a key area where Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT) can provide computational trust, and serve as a source of truth for multiple parties to work from, delivering consistent, factual information across distributed communities,” Healthcare professionals, researchers, and members of the media can have free access to the searchable database of Hedera Hashgraph. One could kill two birds with a stone here. Protecting privacy while advancing scientific research. This is some food for thought for EU Regulators with a view to EU’s Data Strategy.
A screenshot below shows part of the interface of Hedera Hashgraph on Acoer (Acoer, 2020 Coronavirus (COVID-19) Tracker, viewed on 18th of March 2020, https://www.acoer.com/coronavirus):
One major challenge and threat of COVID-19 is to the very structure and purposes of educational systems. Schools are closed in many countries including Greece. The Hellenic Republic, Greece, through Legislative Acts and corresponding Ministerial Decisions announced that schools and universities will remain closed for a long period of time whereas this suspension may be further extended depending on the assessment of the mitigation of COVID-19’s spread in the coming weeks.
The Greek Ministry of Education, in response to this issue, announced that interactive distance learning will be starting on several school grades which is an interesting development considering the novelty of the whole project for traditional Greek educational structures, yet there are shortcomings to this initiative including assessment of progress of students, bandwidth issues etc. Furthermore the Greek Ministry of Education in association with the Greek Ministry Development and Investments, may soon be implementing (through an initiative backed by an EU program) blockchain and DLT technologies on higher education.
Blockchain & Education: An interesting proposal for schools, educators and universities came from Swiss based Odem SA (PR Newswire, ODEM helps fight Coronavirus by offering its Blockchain Education and Credentialing platform for free, PR Newswire, accessed on 18th of March 2020, https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/odem-helps-fight-coronavirus-by-offering-its-blockchain-education-and-credentialing-platform-for-free-301019428.html), which announced (on the 9th of March) that it will provide its blockchain educational platform to schools and universities that were disrupted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. It stated that it is offering its “online integrated learning platform and certification management system free for use to schools and educators to continue educating students until it is safe to return to campus.”
CEO and co-founder of Odem Richard Maaghul stated that:
“…coronavirus is a big concern for us and we want to make sure that we do everything possible to assist in keeping the education doors open, even if it has to be virtual”.
Odem co-founder and COO Johanna Maaghul went on to further note that: “We are able to track students’ activity working remotely so that when students go back to school, the institutions are able to track what they’ve accomplished and register that on the blockchain and even bring it back into their traditional accreditation systems.”
The impact and mechanics of this revolutionary platform is such that Odem co-founders state that: “they have received interest from Italy, Ireland, Germany and Cairo, adding that a United States-based university is exploring uploading numerous courses onto the Odem blockchain in response to the coronavirus threat.”
5. Remote Work:
Amidst the spread of COVID-19, the Hellenic Republic, Greece passed a Legislative Act on the 11th of March 2020 which offered an option for employers to require employees to work remotely.
One of the possible applications of blockchain technology in the future could be for e.g. work productivity and work time tracking. Employees working remotely knowing that the time they work productively is being tracked, would result in that they are more accountable to their output each day while keeping motivated to produce results. Blockchain being a technology for remote consensus and immutable record-keeping could enable and assist the bringing to their full potential, remote work schemes, through its transparent architecture. The options here are endless.
6. Transparency in Donations:
Many countries (including Greece through its Legislative Act of the 14th of March 2020, discussed here) have brought forward mechanisms for donations amidst the COVID-19’s outbreak.
Blockchain technologies can offer unprecedented opportunities for transparency and allocation of resources to locations/areas they are needed the most. According to South China Morning Post on the 14th of February 2020 (Jane Zhang, 2020, China start-up launches blockchain-based platform to improve donation efficiency amid virus crisis, South China Morning Post, viewed on 18th of March 2020, https://www.scmp.com/tech/blockchain/article/3050461/china-start-launches-blockchain-based-platform-improve-donation) and following public outrage over web disseminated photos and videos of donated supplies being taken by non-medical personnel:
“A blockchain-based donation tracking platform has been launched in China, aimed at improving the transparency and efficiency of giving at a time when some traditional charities have come under fire for poor distribution of resources to people in need. Shanzong, which was launched on Monday, tracks what kind of donations are given, from money and masks to medical materials, how they have been matched to areas of need, and when they have been delivered, according to its maker.
Initiated by blockchain start-up Hyperchain and China Xiong’an Group, the platform had recorded information on 500 donations as of Thursday morning. Existing donors include New Sunshine Charity Foundation and Yuegou Living Supermarket, while donation recipients included the Tongshan People’s Hospital, Jiayu People’s Hospital and Xiantao №1 People’s Hospital in Hubei province — all of which are treating people infected with the coronavirus.”
7. Authentication and Issuing of Government Certificates:
Several governments including Greece used existing technology to their benefit such as Greece's initiative for citizens to issue affidavits electronically, in an effort to avoid congestion on Citizen bureaus and public authorities or in the light of government services being disrupted.
Whereas the utility of such measures is undisputed, blockchain technologies take things to the next level. The Ministry of Community Development of the UAE according to the Emirates News Agency (Emirates news Agency, Ministry of Community Development announces precedent services and digital systems for customers, viewed on the 27th of May 2020, http://wam.ae/en/details/1395302832840): "Hessa Essa Buhumaid, Minister of Community Development, announced the introduction of new smooth procedures across all its customer happiness centres for the benefit of the general public across the UAE..." and "she noted that these services allow customers to stay at home and reach out with their requirements and demands through different ways such as phone communications and various applications, the blockchain system and instant chat systems".
According to the report, the blockchain system can process 2,919 different types of documents whereas the ministry will provide services through its website and smart applications, with additional support through e-mail and telephone services.
Digital identity is thus used for accessing government services remotely.
The UAE is one of the advocates of blockchain technologies on the institutional and governmental level and currently the Telecommunications Authority, the Ministry of Health and the Land registry have complete or ongoing projects for the implementation of Distributed Ledger Technology.
8. Financing Affected Businesses:
Governments in the west have issued Acts and Ministerial Decisions in order to increase cash flow for affected businesses and persons. In Greece for example, some of the measures include borrower support measures, reduction of rent for affected businesses and their employees, extended terms for payments of tax and national insurance obligations.
One blockchain related technology is particularly interesting in respect to loans in China. Through a cross-border, pilot blockchain finance platform, 87 businesses in China have received 200 million USD in loans. Through the use of blockchain-based systems and technologies, borrowers create records of key documents required by lenders. These documents are in turn providing a basis for trust to lenders and are easily accessible and reviewed by them who can -in turn - approve and deposit the loan to borrowers within a day (Evelyn Cheng, China taps blockchain technology to boost financing for businesses hit by virus, CNBC, viewed on the 27th of May 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/15/coronavirus-china-taps-blockchain-tech-to-help-firns-hit-by-virus.html).
According to the article from CNBC, Henry Ma, CIO of private bank WeBank said that: “(Due to the impact of the virus), the negative effects of previous pain points such as lack of trust in business, verification inefficiency, lack of information sharing and difficulty of timely supervision have been further amplified” and that “The cross-border, financial blockchain services platform can play a bigger role, and help medium and small-sized enterprises improve the efficiency and convenience of getting export trade financing and other financial credit support.”
9. Insurance Claims:
Another sector that could be largely benefited from the adoption of blockchain technologies is the insurance sector. Traditional insurance company operations and policies mean that medical claims will be handled with considerable delays especially in the light of a. disruptions that resulted due to the pandemic of COVID-19 and b. restrictions that have been imposed.
Earlier in 2019, Blue Cross (Asia-Pacific) Insurance stated that it had become the first insurer in Hong Kong to launch a blockchain solution to speed up medical insurance claims and prevent fraud. They also claimed that the distributed ledger technology (DLT) would further help the company cut costs (Georgina Lee, Hong Kong insurer Blue Cross adopts blockchain to speed up medical claims, eliminate fraud, South China Morning Post, viewed on the 27th of March 2020, https://www.scmp.com/business/banking-finance/article/3006439/hong-kong-insurer-blue-cross-adopts-blockchain-speed).
Closing Remarks — Why Blockchain?
It follows from the above examples that blockchain technologies could offer new, solution-oriented and practical models for crisis management such as the COVID-19 pandemic, yet these models will require deliberation and structural reforms (both in the institutional and corporate levels) in order to get widely implemented and utilized.
Advocates of blockchain technologies realize that the potential of the internet will be taken to the next level with the gradual implementation and utilization of the layer above i.e. blockchain technologies. Once blockchains’ and DLT's efficient, transparent and fraud resilient nature is fully realized, we will be witnessing blockchain technologies dominating increasing aspects and fields of socioeconomic life.
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About the Author |
Ioannis Valmas LLB, LLM, (MSc) is Managing Partner at Valmas Associates and a Greek trial attorney and legal advisor that has represented – almost exclusively – since 2008, overseas clients (from government bodies to private individuals) for their administrative, business and personal legal matters in Greece gaining a stellar reputation abroad. He has lived abroad for almost a decade and earned several degrees from UK Universities. He has attended seminars at US Universities (Harvard and Stanford Law Schools). He has been a member of the Athens Bar Association for over a decade. He is appointed before the Court of Appeals and licensed to practice law throughout the territory of the Hellenic Republic, Greece. His writings on Greek Real Estate Law, Aviation Law and Shipping have been widely published in recent years by publishers in Greece and abroad.