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The world is facing its biggest challenge since World War II – the COVID-19 pandemic. The comparison is not just to make this dark, yet necessary, arithmetic comparison of loss of life, but also to point towards a significant rupture in our modern society and humankind’s vanity at a global level.

However, every historical challenge demands historical leadership. In true spirit of Vasudeva Kutumbukam, meaning “the world is one family”, India assumed the role of a leader in spearheading the global fight against the pandemic and providing support to marginalized sections, and sharing life-saving tools fairly and effectively to the world. One area where India achieved success was in integrating non-medical interventions like Artificial Intelligence (AI), a core technology in the fourth industrial revolution, into its pandemic response system including diagnosis, clinical decision making, therapeutics, surveillance, management of patients, clinical services, or facial recognition with masks. AI has also simultaneously pervaded other industries – such as BFSI, eCommerce, sales, marketing – that has further eased the transition from contact-based services to contact-less services in the face of incessant lockdowns and stringent social distancing measures in place across the country.

India’s healthcare services have seen a significant digital transformation. The use of AI in India increased to 70 per cent in 2020, with 73 per cent of healthcare and pharma companies adopting the technology during the pandemic (according to ORF). In the Union Budget 2022-23, the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission was allocated INR 200 crores for developing the National Digital Health Mission and enabling access and efficiency in delivery of healthcare services to all.

During the pandemic, the Government of India utilized AI for a holistic approach towards mitigating the pandemic and ensuring resilient recovery post-pandemic. A hallmark of India’s response strategy to the pandemic is ‘CoWIN’ - a digital platform that enabled delivery of COVID-19 vaccines across the country in a safe and cost-effective manner along with providing an effective communication platform. The Telemedicine Practice Guidelines, issued in March 2020 jointly by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and NITI Aayog, allowed for timely and remote consultations. Haptik, a Conversational AI company, built the MyGov Corona Helpdesk – an Intelligent Virtual Assistant – in record time. The Government of India’s Digital India Corporation in partnership with Accenture and Microsoft built MyGov Saathi, an AI-chatbot to provide accurate, useful and latest information related to COVID-19. Saathi combines data and analytics, NLP, and conversation AI capabilities to serve up to 50,000 users every day. 

Not only the government, but various stakeholders, through participatory and consultative process, came together in chalking out the path "from the new normal to the new future”. In Kerala, start-up village’s Sanja Vijaykumar built an open-source public software – CoronaSafe – for hospitals that provides real-time analytics of beds and ICUs, real-time monitoring of oxygen, capacity visualization, inventory tracking, telehealth facilities, patient management, clinical data visualisation, and integrated ambulance shifting. 

In certain cases where RT-PCR tests failed to detect COVID mutants, people had flooded diagnostic centres for CT scans and chest X-rays. Centre of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, DRDO developed an AI-based intelligent COVID detection application software called ATMAN AI. The software classifies images under ‘normal’, ‘COVID-19’, and ‘pneumonia’ using chest X-rays with an accuracy of 96.73 per cent on digital X-rays of RT-PCR positive patients. It can be accessed on mobiles, tablets and laptops. Similarly, IIT-Kharagpur launched COVIRAP, a diagnostic tech smartphone app to detect infectious diseases. Mumbai-based start-up developed qXR using deep learning to screen and diagnose COVID-19. Scientists from IIT-Hyderabad have developed COVIHOME, an AI-powered COVID-19 self-testing kit test that gives result in less than an hour for both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients.

AI is also being used to repurpose drugs to provide cure for COVID-10. Indo-German organization Innoplexus, using its proprietary AI and big data platform, analysed expression data, molecular pathways, drug binding affinities, and clinical trials published to assess the capabilities of using Hydroxychloroquine and Remdesiver for COVID-19 treatment. 

States like Madurai and Telangana are also using AI technology to track mask violators. In Hyderabad, the police is leveraging computer vision and deep learning techniques on surveillance cameras across three Urban Police Commissionerate to recognise people who are violating mask rules on the streets. Pune-based start-up, Glimpse Analytics, has been using AI to alert commercial stores and offices of social distancing violation inside the premises. Telangana government had also initiated ‘Medicine from the Sky’ projects that involves drone-based deliveries of blood, vaccines, medical samples, and organs at 16 Primary Healthcare Centres around Vikarabad district.

It is also pertinent to mention the role played by United Payments Interface (UPI) in transitioning from the ‘normal’ cash-powered economy to digital payments mechanisms. The country registered the highest real-time payment transaction in the world at 25.5 billion during peak COVID-19 in 2020 (CLSA). This has helped reinforce social distancing measures that were put in place during the pandemic and allowed smooth functioning of businesses, small and large alike. Additionally, we must also recognise the role played by cheap internet data, high smartphone penetration and India’s Unique Identity Number in adoption of these new digital systems by the general public at a speed never seen before. 

From combating the COVID-19 pandemic to providing access to verified information to easing the blow on businesses, integrating AI into India’s pandemic response has strengthened the country’s preparedness for COVID-19 across all measures while also addressing inequities in delivery of healthcare services.

This is authored by Bhavya Tyagi.

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