In the face of a global calamity, engineers remain ceaselessly at work creating a better world.

Workforce Blog: Working Against the Coronavirus

Dec 7, 2020

by Jeffrey Winters

When the word came down on March 10 that the ASME offices would be closed for two weeks to ride out the COVID-19 surge in the New York City area, most staff members looked at it like a supersized snow day. We would gather just enough material to do just enough work until the situation returned to normal.

I thought I knew better. I had been following the news of a weird, new virus since mid-January, and at home we had already taken steps to ready ourselves for a long haul. My wife and I stocked up on non-perishables—ramen, pasta, dehydrated vegetables, canned goods. We had gloves and masks. We were ready to shut the door, if necessary, for six weeks or more and ride things out secure at home.

For all that preparation, the one thing we had not planned on was that in New York City, the coronavirus already was in the air, as thick as mosquitoes in a north woods summer. By the time we “closed the door,” both my wife and I had contracted the virus.

We both made full recoveries, though far too many people have died from COVID-19 or have suffered long-term complications. But you don’t have to have caught the coronavirus for the pandemic to be personal—no one on Earth has escaped its impact. Industries as varied as petroleum, hospitality, and aviation have all been hit hard by direct measures to limit the spread of the virus and by the effects of those measures on the rest of the economy. Employees everywhere have had to get used to working from home or in workplaces altered by temperature checks and reduced face-to-face interaction.

Learn more about ASME's COVID-19 Response

As should be expected from a profession that defines itself as problem-solvers, engineers have joined the effort to bring the world closer to normal. While the ultimate solution will come in the form of a vaccine, engineers are devising technologies to limit the spread of the virus, either by killing it in the environment or reducing the points of contact between people.

When the editors of Mechanical Engineering magazine set out a few months ago to identify candidates for our annual Emerging Technology Awards, we were struck by the number of replies we received featuring engineers who had introduced products that seemed to target the pandemic. Those innovations may not have fit squarely into the categories we used in previous years, but they were varied enough—and met an urgent, immediate need—that it seemed absurd to ignore them.

Watch a video honoring the Emerging Technology Awards 2020 Winners

Rather than let consistency be our hobgoblin, we instead decided to devote our annual special section to the engineering response to COVID-19. Please recognize, however, that the innovators and innovations we are spotlighting represent a small sample of the myriad ways the engineering community has risen to the occasion this year. 

I am a somewhat skeptical person by nature, though even I was too optimistic in my initial assessment of this year’s pandemic. (I figured we’d be back in the ASME headquarters by May.) But the engineering response has given me hope. Once we are on the other side of the present crisis, we will have new tools for safer workspaces and enhanced communication that otherwise might have taken years longer to develop.

Recommended for You: Engineers in Action during COVID-19

It is by no means a silver lining—nothing can counterbalance so much sickness and death—but it is a testament to the power of the engineering mind. In the face of a global calamity, engineers remain ceaselessly at work creating a better world.

Jeffrey Winters is editor in chief.

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