Justin Nogarede, FEPS Digital Policy Analyst, says that while digital tech can’t solve everything, can it solve anything? Read on to find out about the role of digital tech in the COVID-19 pandemic
When looking at the public response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing stands out: Some of the most technologically sophisticated countries that were expected to do well against infectious diseases, like the U.S., the UK, and the Netherlands, have witnessed some of the most dramatic institutional failures. (1) The reasons for these botched public responses are varied and complex, but there is a lingering feeling that the authorities could have made more effective use of digital technology.
Computational analyses did play a major role in the development of the vaccine and the mapping and tracking of the spread of the virus, but for instance, the use of apps was decidedly underwhelming in the efforts for contract tracing. Why is that, and can digital technology be used more successfully by public authorities in the future?
The public response to the COVID-19 pandemic
Early on in 2020, many authorities were caught illprepared. Institutions whose task it was to predict, prevent and prepare for infectious disease lacked masks, testing capacity, and manpower for contact tracing. In that context, it was extremely seductive for authorities to put their faith in digital technology such as contact-tracing apps. It was hoped this would be an easy solution to get out of the health crisis whilst preventing catastrophic lockdowns. As we now know, this did not work. Too often, digital technology is seen as a quick fix, a stopgap to prop up otherwise failing institutions. Unfortunately, technology cannot fix complex problems in isolation.
In the case of the contract-tracing app, apart from the myriad technological problems and hiccups, authorities soon learned that such apps needed to be embedded into the wider healthcare infrastructure, where manpower and human expertise play a fundamental role, but are in short supply after years of austerity. (2) If people get notified of a possibly risky contact, but cannot get tested, then any benefit is greatly reduced. In addition, such apps need widespread public uptake and use to be effective, which requires citizens’ trust and active engagement.
This cannot be magically created. Addressing that requires a more fundamental reflection on the way authorities approach citizens. In other words, digital technology can be part of the answer, but it should go hand in hand with social and institutional innovation.
Using digital systems in the COVID-19 crisis
The COVID-19 crisis also underlined that many authorities cannot design and use digital systems in an effective manner. In a narrow sense, authorities lacked qualified staff with technical skills in the domain of IT. To take one example out of many, the Dutch organisation responsible for COVID-19 testing and vaccination used systems that lacked fundamental data protection principles. As a result, practically all staff (26,000 employees) had access to sensitive personal data of citizens, and much of it was illegally traded on the web. (3) Once the leak was discovered, public officials repeatedly downplayed the problem, and showed a lack of understanding of basic cybersecurity principles. This likely undermined citizens’ willingness to get tested and vaccinated.
In a broader sense, COVID-19 underlined how little control public authorities have over important digital infrastructure. Governments quickly realised that their contact tracing apps would only reach citizens with the approval of Google and Apple, which control the market for smartphone operating systems. The firms would only allow the apps to function if certain conditions were fulfilled. Although in the event this was positive – Apple and Google insisted on certain privacy protection conditions being met, it showed that governments are fundamentally constrained in their approach to addressing a public health crisis. By investing too little in internal capacity, and relying too much on outsourcing to third parties, public authorities have become dependent on private digital infrastructure and skills to provide fundamental public services.
This warrants a reflection about the skills and infrastructures that authorities may want to develop and possess in-house to quickly and flexibly respond to future crises that will certainly materialise.
How citizens gather information & communicate
Finally, the internet and social media have transformed the way citizens gather information and communicate; this requires more transparent communication from authorities. Citizens have watched first-hand the differences of opinion between public health experts on the best way to curb the pandemic.
They have seen the widely varying actions that were taken by different countries. In such a context, authorities need to communicate clearly and openly about the measures taken, and most importantly, about the uncertainty surrounding them. Failing to do so or snubbing any criticism instead of engaging with it, only fuels the mistrust and conspiracy theories that are rife on social media in any event. Unfortunately, many governments decided to treat their citizens as children unable to handle uncertainty, which undermined the legitimacy of the public response. Countries that did practice radical transparency in their communications to the public, like Taiwan, have fared much better.
To conclude, digital technology can help public authorities in better carrying out their tasks. But thinking it can be done on the cheap is a recipe for failure. Digital technology is not a replacement for trust, for human expertise, adequate funding, and competent institutions.
- J.A. Abbey a.o., ‘The Global Health Security Index is not predictive of coronavirus pandemic responses among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries’, PLoS One, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7540886/.
- That does not mean contact-tracing apps are useless, see for instance emerging evidence from the UK: C. Wymant a.o.,‘The epidemiological impact of the NHS COVID-19 App’, Nature (2021).
- Kim Loohuis, ‘Data of thousands of Dutch citizens leaked from government Covid-19 systems’, Computer Weekly, 8 February 2021, https://www.computerweekly.com/news/252495983/Data-of-thousands-of-Dutch-citizens-leaked-from-government-Covid-19-systems
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