7 ways digital can boost Covid-19 response and recovery

Man wearing headphones in isolation

Written by Calum Handforth, Adviser (Digitalisation and Smart Cities) - UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development

As the number of countries with Covid-19 cases approaches 200, each is engaged in a different stage of responding to the global pandemic. Some countries are also taking tentative steps into a recovery phase.

Such a massive global crisis has highlighted the importance of a whole-of-government, and whole-of-society, approach. Within this approach, the role of digital has also been significant.

Early indications highlight that digital will also be a key component of Covid-19 recovery in many countries, particularly in lower-income countries that could yet be most affected by the disease. However, to-date, much of the focus regarding digital has centred around apps and contact-tracing. Even more important elements of digitalisation — crucial for both Covid-19 response and recovery — are at risk of being forgotten.


How digital has accelerated response

The responses of countries that have been less hard-hit by Covid-19 – such as Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam – have a number of things in common. This includes prompt lockdowns, robust public health actions, and effective diagnosis and treatment. Beyond this, though, these – and other – countries have also benefited from leveraging digital in their response to Covid-19.

So far, much of the discussion has focused on mobile apps and other technologies to facilitate contact-tracing – including the TraceTogether application open-sourced by the Singapore government. Such tools have had some impact, but they have also been meet with privacy concerns.


Open data and data harmonisation have been essential in tracking disease spread, and will prove even more important in continuing to drive a whole-of-government approach


This focus on contact-tracing, while important, risks overlooking the central role digital tools more broadly have had in fighting the virus. This has included using digital channels – such as WhatsApp and online portals – to disseminate information and quell rumours, and enabling digital health declarations to minimise lockdown restrictions. Countries have also focused on tools such as digital temperature monitors in order to support prevention, containment, and diagnosis efforts.


The role of digital in recovery

In Singapore, where the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development is based, the government has recently committed to increase its digital spend by 30% — to over $2.5bn — to drive Covid-19 recovery. In order to support other governments in exploring this area, the UNDP Global Centre has identified seven digital foundations that are likely to be important in how countries recover from Covid-19. These foundations are:

  • Wired and wireless digital connectivity, which is a fundamental component of healthcare systems – but also drives remote working and learning, e-commerce, and public service delivery.
  • Equitable and inclusive governance, to ensure that no one is marginalised or excluded from recovery efforts – particularly to prevent any widening of the digital divide, or bias created by digital tools.
  • Cybersecurity, to protect the privacy of citizens and other users in a growing digital economy – and to ensure the resilience of the critical infrastructure needed to respond to future challenges.
  • Skills and change management, improving the digital literacy of citizens and civil servants – from senior leadership and down.
  • Software, whether open-source or proprietary, to drive how governments function and operate.
  • Authentication and identification, because inclusive, secure, and citizen-centric verification assets and processes are likely to be a central component of accessing public and private services — and for receiving government subsidies and other support.
  • Data, because open data, data harmonisation, and other norms and standards have been essential in tracking disease spread; and will prove even more important in continuing to drive a whole-of-government approach, and catalysing the private sector, for recovery.

Each of the above foundations, and digital transformation more broadly, are also crucial in driving the development, usage, and sustainability of digital public services. These — including digital payments, digital public service delivery, and digital communications channels — will play a crucial role in Covid-19 recovery.

We see these foundations as being essential in building new industries and opportunities, sustaining existing ones, and enabling countries to shift to a “new normal”. The government of Rwanda, in particular, has started to build – or strengthen – its progress against the above foundations in a post-Covid-19 world. The country has recognised the importance of cashless transactions, accelerated connectivity efforts, and leveraged the role of data. Similarly, the government of Kenya has recognised the importance of digital inclusion in driving Covid-19 recovery.



It’s about more than just technology

Although digital is an important component of Covid-19 response and recovery, it is not a panacea. Similarly, it needs to be applied strategically, thoughtfully, and inclusively — with the rights, privacy, and interests of citizens at the forefront. This is particularly important as Covid-19 has accelerated digital transformation efforts in many countries. Regulation needs to keep pace.


The success of a national response to any crisis is premised on the talent and inclusion of its people


In addition, the potential, and existing successes, of digital in the context of Covid-19 are not solely due to the new innovations that digital can enable. Its role is founded on long-term and strategic investment and leadership — as evidenced by Singapore’s extensive Smart Nation initiative — and the skills, talent, and ingenuity of individuals across all sectors.

The scale of the Covid-19 crisis sometimes distracts from the human and individual stories behind every data point. Similarly, the success of a national response to any crisis is premised on the talent and inclusion of its people. This is the essential component that will enable digital – and other tools – to enable response, recovery, and prosperity.

Originally posted here


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