How Tech Industry Is Reacting to the COVID-19 Pandemic

eWEEK NEWS ANALYSIS: As the pandemic plays out during the coming months, the frightful cost of political gamesmanship and institutional dawdling is likely to become increasingly apparent. But so will the proactive efforts of individuals and organizations.

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It doesn’t take long for the world to be turned upside down. Three months ago, despite dire reports of a new coronavirus and growing epidemic in China’s city of Wuhan, work and leisure elsewhere were preceding pretty much as normal, especially in the tech industry. The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) attracted over 175,000 attendees to Las Vegas, including more than 61,000 from overseas. Despite some warnings from vendors with significant investments in Wuhan, planning continued apace for a host of spring IT customer and partner events. Calendar dates were locked down, and flights and hotels were booked.

Then things began to go sideways. In mid-January, the first case of COVID-19 occurred outside of China, and a few days later the country’s National Health Commission confirmed that human-to-human transmission was occurring. By the end of the month, the World Health Organization (WHO) said the outbreak was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Less than six weeks later, on March 11, WHO declared the outbreak to be a pandemic, with the bulk of new cases occurring in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Like other businesses, the actions of IT vendors regarding the coronavirus have not been uniform. However, many in the tech industry are taking active leadership roles in responding to and, with luck and hard work, quelling COVID-19. Let’s consider what some vendors are doing and how they may impact the pandemic.

Taking Care of Their Own and Others

It’s not too much an overstatement to call the tech industry a harbinger when it comes to COVID-19. That is likely due to the considerable manufacturing partnerships and investments that many vendors have in Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic (I discussed this at some length in a recent Pund-IT Review). More than many other sectors, tech vendors also understand the global nature of supply chains and other critical business processes. Disrupt those and the ripples extend over distance and time, often uncontrollably.

While politicians and officials in the U.S. and elsewhere dithered and dissembled through February, tech companies moved proactively. Lenovo was among the first vendors to act—not surprising given the company’s substantial presence and deep ties in Wuhan. In early March, Google I/O, Dell Technologies World, IBM Think and other major industry events were canceled, and many vendors announced plans to move conferences online.

A few days later, Dell was among the first U.S.-based vendors to outline changes in its travel and working at home policies, guidelines for event and meeting planning, and tips for keeping employees healthy. Similar programs from other tech vendors followed quickly.

Proactive response extended well beyond the tech industry. In mid-March, after Santa Clara, Calif., (in the heart of Silicon Valley) became a COVID-19 hot spot, eight Bay Area counties announced a “shelter-in-place” effort that ordered the closure of non-essential businesses, along with schools and universities. The program also encouraged residents to practice “social distancing” by staying in their homes and refraining from unnecessary travel or other activities. (See Webopedia's definition of "social distancing.")

On March 19, California became the first state to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order. The following day, Connecticut, Illinois, New York and Oregon followed suit.

Collaborative and Individual Commitments

Tech vendors have taken leadership roles in supporting COVID-19 research and mitigation efforts and are also actively helping their customers and partners weather the crisis. Following its efforts with the DOE to utilize the Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge Labs for antivirus modeling (as noted in my previous post), IBM announced a new collaboration with the DOE, MIT, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and other national labs and technology providers to offer a 245-petaflop “pool” of supercomputing capacity for COVID-19 analysis, treatment and potential cures.

Additionally, IBM has developed a new and precise “incident map” for COVID-19 on its Weather Channel app and on Weather.com, and is steering resources to marshal its “Call for Code Global Challenge” to focus on solutions aimed at COVID-19, including enhancements of crisis communications, remote learning and cooperative local communities. Like many organizations, the company is marshaling its engineers and manufacturing capacity to develop and deliver badly needed safety products and medical equipment to doctors, nurses and first responders.

Dell, Lenovo, Intel, Cisco Systems, HP and other vendors are actively supporting a variety of COVID-19 efforts. Those include assisting customers and partners to enhance business continuity and workplace productivity, including supporting working from home (WFH) programs. This includes delivering robust laptop, convertible and desktop endpoints; supplementing data center resources; and supporting WFH video conferencing and collaboration technologies. Numerous tech vendors, including ServiceNow and Salesforce are also providing free collaboration offerings that both existing clients and prospects should find useful during the crisis, allowing them considerable leeway for considering and investigating longer-term WFH solutions.

Final Analysis

When confronted with extraordinary events, it’s commonplace for people to look to the past for guidance and insights. Not surprisingly, numerous commentaries have been published comparing COVID-19 to previous medical disasters, such as the 1918-1920 Spanish flu pandemic and the polio epidemics of the 1950s. While those events can be instructive from the standpoint of understanding the dynamics of disease outbreaks, I don’t believe they are entirely successful in mapping to COVID-19.

That’s partly due to the massive changes in the understanding of viruses, contagion and epidemiology that have occurred during the past century. The 1918 flu pandemic ravaged entire regions, resulting in 20 million to 50 million deaths and throwing tens of millions of families and organizations into crisis. Though COVID-19 is inflicting immeasurable tragedies of its own, the detection and analysis of this novel coronavirus have been far swifter than most past epidemics. The efforts being mounted by IT vendors and many other businesses aim to sustain or increase that momentum, speed the search for a cure and sustain communities impacted by COVID-19.

Could the response of governments and involved organizations to COVID-19 be better? Absolutely. As the pandemic plays out during the coming months, the frightful cost of political gamesmanship and institutional dawdling is likely to become increasingly apparent. But so will the proactive efforts of individuals and organizations, including many people and companies in the technology industry. As COVID-19 is contained and the world turns right-side up, those same people and organizations are also likely to provide examples for successfully enduring and recovering.

Charles King is a principal analyst at PUND-IT and a regular contributor to eWEEK. © 2019 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.