How blockchain could play a relevant role in putting Covid-19 behind us

Blockchain and Covid-19 — the two don’t immediately go together. But, the technology could play a role in putting the pandemic behind us.

The early days of blockchain were like the gold rush of the Wild West. We bore witness to a surge of investor money finding its way into the hands of cowboy founders of less-than-scrupulous, blockchain-based business ideas. Indeed, there have been almost 2,000 cryptocurrency projects in total, but only a few dozen are worth mentioning.

What we are left with today is a smaller number of more serious blockchain projects that have real-world use cases that go beyond cryptocurrency. Blockchain is, and always has been, much more than just a get-rich-quick scheme.

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For obvious reasons, a recent area of interest in the power of blockchain, and other innovative technology, lies in our health systems. When Innovate UK (the government innovation agency) announced a series of grants to fund potential projects to address the Covid-19 crisis, they received over 8,000 applications in a matter of days, of which less than 10% were awarded. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, as various government bodies receive thousands of innovative pitches on a weekly basis, all claiming to improve efficiencies and reduce costs.

Many of the solutions likely pertained to blockchain elements, and some may even have been good, but the Covid-19 outbreak made it extremely difficult for authorities to filter through the noise and effectively gauge the potential of such an array of different projects.

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The blockchain-Covid challenge

Let’s forget for a minute about the exceptional aspects of Covid-19 and try to approach it the same way we would any other challenge. We can clearly see that the reason why blockchain applications might fail to solve certain Covid challenges is for the same reason that has happened in the past whenever we’ve had a desperate search for a problem to solve. Many are waiving a blockchain-shaped magic wand in the air and hoping it will fix the issue somehow.

Instead, let’s take a step back and look at two challenges created by Covid, and where those match the unique use cases created by blockchain’s unique value proposition.

1. The vulnerability of global supply chains

Covid-19 has revealed the weaknesses of global supply chains with countless reports of PPE issues, a lack of food in impoverished areas, and a breakdown of business-as-normal, even in places where demand has remained constant.

Trust has always been the keystone of trade. But how can you trust supply chain partners to deliver in times of widespread failure? Owing to its decentralised nature, blockchain-based applications create a transparent ecosystem when you trust — and see — that the mechanisms in place are fair to all. It can provide instant overviews of entire supply chains to highlight issues as soon as they arrive. What’s more, it is possible to implement live failsafes with smart contracts that can ensure the smooth continuation of the supply chain and remove the very need for trust in the first place.

To this end, the World Economic Forum developed the Blockchain Deployment Toolkit, a set of high-level guidelines to help companies implement best practices across blockchain projects – especially those helping solve supply chain issues. They worked with more than 100 organisations for more than a year, delving into 40 different blockchain use cases, including traceability and automation, to help guide organisations in their efforts to solve real-world problems with blockchain.

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2. Re-opening high-density venues (clubs, stadiums, restaurants)

There is an economic and social need to re-open society in a way that’s safe for everyone. But how can organisers re-open high-density venues while reducing the risk of creating new Covid clusters?

Most proposed solutions focus on gathering the personal data of attendees, which has the fatal flaw of deep GDPR-related challenges, as well as many other security issues. A popular proposal that gained a lot of traction in the media was to use health status certificates.

A health status certificate is a way to prove to others, at work and in public, that you are not a danger to public health, and that is where it should stop. The underlying reason should not matter; not whether you’ve already had the contagion and recovered, whether you’ve been vaccinated once it becomes available, or whether you’re showing no symptoms on the day. The blockchain application of an old cryptographic concept called Zero-Knowledge Proof happens to be extremely relevant for the use case of proving health status while maintaining data privacy and security.

What’s more, the World Health Organisation has warned against the creation of health status certificate initiatives that could potentially create a series of new issues that the right technology could address, such as discrimination, for example, if immunity were to become provable. While the technology exists to help, questions remain over the ethics of its implementation in this context.

The task at hand is definitely greater than any we’ve seen so far. But if history has proven anything, it is that a major crisis is always fertile ground for innovation. Maybe blockchain won’t be able to do anything immediately to tackle the Covid crisis itself, but there is no doubt that it will play an innovative role in solving a number of the wider challenges it has raised.

Written by Tommy Jamet, manager at Blockchain Reply

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