Covid-19 has caused a global crisis that is tearing through a world more interconnected by technology than ever before. But compared to previous outbreaks of disease – even those as recent as SARS, MERS and Ebola – technology also provides leaders and their countries with new tools to respond effectively.
The speed and scale of the Covid-19 pandemic requires leaders to reorganise their governments to focus intensively on crisis response, prioritising testing and scaling up essential technology and medical equipment.
All countries have their own unique circumstances when responding to the crisis, but ultimately, they also face the same two challenges. First, they have to organise to fight the virus and prevent loss of life. Second, they have to navigate the enormous economic and social disruption caused to cushion the impact.
How leaders and their countries choose to approach technology, and the policies they put in place around it, will make the difference between outcomes that are bearable and outcomes that are catastrophic.
The Technology and Public Policy team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change was established to help leaders master the revolution in technology – accessing its benefits and mitigating its risks. Now, in the new Covid-19 reality, we have refocused our mission on answering this question: How can the world use technology to respond to the virus and the crisis it has caused? Over the coming weeks and months, we will be considering the answer using a two-part-framework.
Using technology to fight the virus. Policymakers need to harness technology across all fronts, from testing and tracing to therapeutics and equipment, so that the spread of Covid-19 can be slowed and ultimately stopped.
Using technology to cushion the impact. Policymakers need to support the ways people and organisations are using the internet to come together and deal with new pressures as our lives shift abruptly online.
Using Technology to Fight the Virus
The immediate objective around the world is to suppress the virus, which means detecting it quickly and breaking the chain of transmission. For those who have contracted the virus and become unwell, we will need treatments for potentially life-threatening conditions. And in the long run, the goal is of course a vaccine.
Much of this work is the domain of medical experts and clinicians, scientists and epidemiologists. The role of technology is to support them in their work, and where possible to give them new tools, new options and new ways to go further, faster.
We know, for example, that extensive testing and rigorous contact tracing is an essential part of the suppression strategy. Traditionally contract tracing is done by interviewing people who have tested positive, in order to piece together a picture of who else may have been exposed. This procedure can be unreliable, however, and is very labour intensive.
In Singapore, the government’s Trace Together app takes advantage of the Bluetooth functionality of modern smartphones to detect and securely record when two devices have been in close proximity. When someone who has been using the app tests positive for Covid-19 they are asked to share their data, which in turn can be used to alert other people who may have been near them recently.
On the issue of mass-testing – which is essential to returning to a state of normality by easing widespread lockdowns and social-distancing measures – technology can be harnessed to help scale-up rapid-testing capabilities, and new digital tools will be vital to support the delivery of large-scale community testing and to triage cases.
There are many other applications of technology in the fight against the virus. On the hardware front, technology can support everything from searching for equipment suppliers and distributing tests and medicines quickly, through to 3D printing emergency valves for ventilators.
Back in the digital realm, other applications range from using machine learning to spot and predict patterns, through to providing digital “immunity passports” for people who have had the virus and the repurposing of existing digital apps and services to share public-health information and serve patients.
Technology also has a powerful role to play in organising collaboration between technologists and practitioners; the Coronavirus Tech Handbook is one example of how massive, decentralised participation can be made possible by technology.
Using Technology to Cushion the Impact
At the same time as suppressing the virus, technology gives us new and sometimes surprising tools to manage the economic and social disruption that have become part of our daily lives.
Right now, this is mostly about cushioning the impact as economies abruptly contract and communities go into lockdown. Over time, technology will also have an important role to play in helping us recover and move on to a post-Covid-19 world.
The internet was designed to be robust, and we have already seen a dramatic shift from the offline to the online world. For people confined to their homes, the ability to stay in touch, stream entertainment, and order food and other household essentials over the internet is a lifeline.
Tech companies have stepped up to manage the surge in demand for video conferencing and messaging services. Content providers and networks have worked together to keep people online and reduce the impact of high-bandwidth services.
Office-based companies are discovering they can still operate with staff working remotely, and they are learning from companies that have been successfully working like this for years. The same is true for governments and charities where, in the face of huge disruption, moving traditional services to digital channels where possible will be essential to maintain some availability.
Many other organisations, from shops and restaurants to fitness studios and museums, are adapting their businesses and migrating to the internet to stay active.
And of course schools and universities around the world have been leading the way. Virtual classrooms and collaboration technologies have allowed many to adapt their teaching, group work and student interaction for a world where people can only gather online. At TBI, we have also joined UNESCO's Global Education Coalition, which seeks to facilitate inclusive learning opportunities for children and youth and provide appropriate distance education during this unprecedented disruption.
Technology is not, of course, a silver bullet – no country can face the Covid-19 crisis without the right leadership and effective, organised government. But it gives leaders options and can buy their countries time, both of which are immensely valuable.
Nor should technology be used unquestioningly. Operating in a crisis does not remove the practical and moral obligations on leaders to act responsibly. Novel applications of technology should, however, be explored and used imaginatively and with an open mind.
Some might argue that now is the time to focus on what we know and not take any risks. At TBI, we take a different view: New technologies must be carefully studied and decisions taken consciously, but now is not the time to let the best be the enemy of the good.
The way to walk this line is for leaders to hold firm to their values, and to reflect these openly and honestly to the people they serve. The need for optimism has never been greater; the right policy approach in relation to technology is our best chance to escape the otherwise impossible choice between saving lives or saving our way of life.
Here, then, are three key principles that leaders and policymakers must keep in mind when considering the role that technology should play in confronting Covid-19.
Turn the networked public into an advantage.
In a networked world, our connectivity can be used as an advantage – to minimise disruption, work together, share information and keep people safe. Policymakers need to leverage these upsides, conceiving new institutions, new ways to communicate and new approaches to working with the reality of the internet rather than trying to fight it. In particular, given how fast the situation is evolving, people in positions of authority should speak with humility about the state of their knowledge. The information environment was already chaotic before Covid-19, and pretending to know that which is actually uncertain only compounds the problem.
Lean in to innovation and experimentation.
The cost of a global lockdown is astronomically high; investments that might shorten it even slightly have a huge expected social return. Policymakers need to ramp up support and funding aggressively across the board – from accelerating innovative approaches to delivering the volumes of tests and equipment required, through to backing startups and entrepreneurs with ideas to keep the economy going and safely ease the lockdown. Policymakers must also be prepared to adapt regulation quickly so that unconventional but proven solutions to immediate problems are not held up by unnecessary red tape.
Be more transparent with the public than ever – especially when putting measures in place that might be considered intrusive.
One consequence of a wartime mindset is putting options on the table that would not normally be considered. This throws up particular policy dilemmas in domains like privacy, data sharing, intellectual property and content moderation, where open societies traditionally place a high value on individual rights and freedoms. In the face of an urgent and unprecedented global crisis, it will be appropriate to reconsider how these policy trade-offs are calibrated, but we must do so consciously. Policymakers must ensure transparency over both decisions and consequences, and impose systematic sunset clauses to avoid crisis powers becoming the new normal.
Technology has a vital role to play in the response to Covid-19, both in developing tools to fight the virus itself and in cushioning the impact on society as the pandemic persists. Over the coming weeks and months, the Technology and Public Policy team at TBI will be going deeper into the solutions technology can offer through a series of policy briefs. We will publish them here as a resource for policymakers and as the starting point for an ongoing discussion with leaders.
Covid-19 is a global crisis, and perhaps the greatest tragedy is that the world has not yet come together to find a global solution. But there is still hope. New ideas and technologies know no borders, and the internet connects us even when we are apart. Leaders that put this mindset at the heart of their strategy can and will show the world that a better future remains possible.