Business as Unusual in a Post-Pandemic World

By Rich Handley

From tracking employees' movements to monitoring proper hand hygiene, RFID technology is awash with possibilities for reducing the risk of future COVID-19 infections.

Despite frustrating news reports of large groups of people stubbornly refusing to socially distance, wear masks, or otherwise do their part as responsible members of society, it appears that progress is slowly being made in some areas (often outside the United States) to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and get humanity out of quarantine and back to some semblance of normalcy. Whether or not you believe it's time yet to end lockdowns—and a lot of scientific and medical experts will tell you that it's definitely too early—it's undeniable that a great many changes will be in effect as the population leaves their homes and returns to workplaces, schools, and stores. At least, they'll be in effect at businesses that care about their personnel and their customers.

Apple, Google, and other entities are working toward developing GPS- and Bluetooth-based contact-tracking solutions to monitor who has contracted COVID-19, with whom an individual has come in contact, and where he or she had been before the infection was diagnosed. In the meantime, many companies are thinking about how they will protect employees, clients, and others on their premises once non-remote work resumes, by keeping tabs on everyone's movements within a facility, as well as whether or not workers are successfully practicing social distancing and carrying out frequent and proper hand washing. Wristbands and badges containing radio frequency identification tags will play a large role in that effort.

RFID-based location-tracking systems are nothing new in the healthcare sector, as many hospitals, clinics, elder-care homes and other facilities have used the technology to keep track of their patients and ensure that medical personnel comply with hand-hygiene regulations. With frequent warnings of a second wave of viral infection filling news headlines, private businesses and conference centers are now considering similar methods for preventing coronavirus outbreaks on their crowded premises. Such a system could issue an alert, for example, if workers were walking or standing too close to one another, if they were congregating in rooms containing too many people, or if they were failing to wash their hands on a regular basis. Employees would be wise to embrace such a solution, as it would be in their best interests.

The idea of using RFID to closely monitor the movements of workers and visitors will inevitably raise privacy issues. This is also nothing new for the RFID sector. Some might consider tracking efforts to be a violation of protected rights, touting freedom as being more important than health. Although I value my Constitutionally protected freedoms and recognize the danger of letting a government go too far in curtailing them, I cannot in good conscience agree with this rather myopic stance.

Simply put, protecting an individual's right to shake hands, get a haircut, expect restaurant table service, attend an amusement park or eschew mask-wearing is in no conceivable way more vital than preventing potentially millions of deaths. It's a selfish outlook, one that flies in the face of what it means to be an adult, a friend, a family member, a human being, a religious person and a functioning member of society. My rights and yours end when our actions endanger lives, and that's how it should be.

To employ a cliché, there's a reason that yelling "Fire!" in a crowded building when no fire exists is a very bad idea. Outcries about freedom of speech being violated won't change the fact that such a prank would be dangerous and should carry consequences since it would unnecessarily endanger others—just like refusing to socially distance, wear a mask in public, or wash your hands would do.

There's an oft-quoted exchange of dialogue in the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. As Spock lies dying of radiation poisoning, he tells his captain, Jim Kirk, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," to which Kirk empathetically replies "Or the one." It's meant to evoke tears in the eyes of viewers as Spock willingly gives his life to save his friends and shipmates during a time of crisis, and to illustrate that in any sizable community, individuals must sometimes put their own personal needs aside in order to protect the larger group. It's the rational thing to do. It's the right thing to do.

Being instructed to wear a mask, socially distance, avoid handshakes and hugs, and keep one's hands clean pales in comparison to sacrificing yourself to save a starship crew. In fact, it has the opposite effect: it greatly increases your chances of keeping yourself, your coworkers, your clients, and your friends and family members safe. If your employer opts to roll out an RFID-based system to monitor your movements in a post-pandemic world, it's understandable that this might not sit well with you from the standpoint of preserving personal freedoms. But I hope you'll consider the other side of the argument: being careful saves lives—and our freedoms, as well as the freedoms of those we hold dear, mean nothing at all if we're dead.

The global pandemic is not a hoax. People are dying by the hundreds of thousands, businesses are going under left and right, and economies are in terrifyingly bad shape. We must all band together to stop things from getting worse, both for society's sake and for our own. If that means having your employer watch to make sure you're not infecting others, then it's an acceptable sacrifice and it's just good common sense. After all, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Or the one.

Rich Handley has been the managing editor of RFID Journal since 2005. Rich has authored, edited or contributed to numerous books about pop culture and is also the editor of Eaglemoss's Star Trek Graphic Novel Collection.