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What role is there for engineers in pandemic preparedness and response?

2020.03.26

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world, it is straining medical systems and supplies, and changing daily life as people practice social distancing, schools close, and organizations tell their employees to work from home.

Medical professionals are on the frontlines in the fight against COVID-19 as they care for patients and work to create a vaccine. These unprecedented times have left other professionals wondering what they can do? How can they contribute to help society through this pandemic?

Marisa Sterling, President-elect of Professional Engineers Ontario and Assistant Dean and Director, Diversity, Inclusion and Professionalism at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, took to LinkedIn last week to ask that very question of her engineering colleagues.

“When I think about our professions in Canada, every profession has a role to play, and they’re probably more effective when they’re working in concert with others,” she explains. “So I wanted to know, ‘what are engineers doing at this point in time?’”

Her post generated a discussion among engineers about the many ways in which the engineering community across Canada has a role to play during this pandemic—from manufacturing supplies for frontline medical workers, to ensuring that essential services continue to serve Canadians.

Producing face shields and ventilators

With the wide range of engineering disciplines, examples abound of how engineers’ research can help during a pandemic. For example, Andrew Trivett from Sustainable Design Engineering at UPEI, along with his colleagues, is conducting conducting research to adapt a hand-held, portable technology to detect whether someone carries the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Dionne Aleman, engineering professor at the University of Toronto, has modelled pandemic spread.

And still other engineers and engineering students at higher education institutions across Canada and around the world are rallying to answer the urgent calls from medical professionals for more ventilators, masks, shields, and other protective equipment.

An online community called HelpfulEngineering.org has quickly popped up to share ideas and designs that can be turned into prototypes anywhere in the world where there is a demand. University and college labs, Makerspaces, and workshops across Canada are quickly finding ways they can use these open source designs to produce what is needed.

For example, the Richard L’Abbé Makerspace at the University of Ottawa is just one of many such facilities at higher education institutions across Canada currently producing protective equipment for healthcare workers and others.

“We were feeling what we’re all feeling right now—we weren’t sure what to do,” says Hanan Anis, NSERC Chair in Entrepreneurial Engineering Design at the University of Ottawa and creator of the Makerspace. “We looked to Italy, saw doctors without shields, and my first thought was, ‘we can do this.’”

She and her Makerspace colleagues went online, found a design, finalized it, and within a few hours, started printing it. They can make 100 face shields per day. After posting on social media that shields would be available, emails from medical professionals and others looking for this equipment haven’t stopped coming in, Anis said. Now her and her colleagues are looking at a ventilator prototype, knowing that they could be needed very soon should the medical system be overwhelmed as it has been in other countries.

“We’re trying to be a bit ahead of the curve,” Anis explains. “We’re not trying to make money, we’re not trying to sell these things. Instead of sitting helpless, we’re trying to do something that might turn out to be useful for someone.”

Enabling work from home and maintaining essential services

While medical professionals care for those infected with COVID-19, the rest of the country has a responsibility to prevent further spread of the virus by practicing social distancing. This means that schools have closed, and many non-essential businesses and organizations have told their employees to work from home if they can. Yet many engineers continue to ensure that essential services are maintained.

“We still need sanitation, we need clean water, we need power distributed to our homes as we’re going online and staying in touch with our families and friends,” Sterling describes as she reflects on the comments she received on her LinkedIn post. Engineers are central to a lot of this infrastructure, she explains.

For example, computer, software, electrical, and other engineers are working to ensure that networks are able to accommodate the massive increase in Canadians working from home over the past few weeks.

“Everybody’s trying to do that and that leverages the internet and the infrastructure that we have in place,” says Chris Zinck, President of Zinck Computer Group Limited in Dartmouth, NS, and an Engineers Canada Board Director. “Engineers built that.”

Zinck’s company provides small business IT services from custom software to installing workstations and network services. He said that he and his colleagues have been going “flat out” since their clients began to instruct their employees to work from home earlier this month, equipping them with the infrastructure necessary to triple, or sometimes quadruple, the number of people working remotely.

Communications infrastructure engineers are similarly likely working to add capacity nationwide, he says.

“That keeps the economy going. Imagine if people went home and didn’t work? It’s a lifeline to keep people going.”

Protecting the public

Sterling is sure that engineers will have a role to play in longer-term considerations as well, once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Engineers and others will look at the lessons learned during this pandemic and reflect on how we can be better prepared should another pandemic occur.

“How do you have physical things like doorknobs and so forth that are resistant to viruses,” she wonders. “How do you build a social community that is still social and yet is still able to manage itself through a pandemic like this? How can we set up society to have greater prevention of these pandemics? Are there other considerations in design that engineers need to be thinking about from this pandemic so that they can be protecting the public welfare?”

Ultimately, the role for engineers during a pandemic is the same as it is at any other time, as is enshrined in their professional obligation: how to best protect the public. Different types of engineers have different skill sets and will do that in different ways, Anis describes.

“We know very well that this sort of crisis will define our generation,” she says. “We need to do something. Engineers build stuff. We tell students that our role is to service society. Whether it’s the ventilator, or the shield, it’s the little piece that we can do to help. I’m sure that others can do many things. We all need to look at our skill sets and figure out what we can do.”