In interviews I’ve seen of officials from South Korea and Singapore on their handling of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been struck at the emphasis they gave to digital tools and apps as critical to how they managed the spread of the pandemic in their own countries. But from what I’m seeing, it looks like information and communication technology (ICT) and data science have been buried deep in the box of technology tools our government has so far deployed in the fight against COVID-19. Pharmacology and epidemiology are of course necessarily prominent, but as a potent weapon against the pandemic, ICT seems to have been relegated to the background.
We cannot contain the virus through sheer political machismo and the heavy hand of the state. Our government leaders need timely and accurate data in devising strategic measures to contain the virus. In combat, be it in the military or epidemiological realm, timely and reliable information is critical. The scientific approach to problem-solving hinges on accurate and timely data. Yet we have gone for weeks with our leaders admitting that we do not know or see the enemy enough to use more focused “rifle” solutions. We are thus forced into using the shotgun solution of lockdown, aka enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), at great (and probably avoidable) economic cost.
We can take a sampling of a few government departments and look into their use of data, and on the timeliness and accuracy of the information that they are feeding our President and the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases. On April 2, 2020, the Inquirer bannered: “Red tape at DSWD seen delaying P200-B cash aid.” The Department of Social Welfare and Development was reportedly downloading needed forms to the local government units (LGUs), that must print bar-coded IDs for distribution to each potential beneficiary. Apart from the resulting logistical nightmare, legislators have criticized this as “an unnecessary bureaucratic layer that is vulnerable to politicking and corruption.”
More than a month into the crisis, the Department of Health still has no ICT technology available to the public for an organized and comprehensive contact tracing of people exposed to positive COVID-19 cases. South Korea had employed a mobile phone app platform whereby people under investigation and monitoring could report their condition in real time to national health and local officials. The system provided public health officials access to primary data from hospitals and from affected individuals and communities. This greatly helped shorten chains of data transmission and enhanced their capacity to plan ahead by identifying people and communities at risk, instead of being reduced to firefighting immense odds that threaten to overwhelm the health care system.
At the Department of Labor and Employment, the best technology they seem to have employed is a text blast: “Tulong mula sa DOLE para sa displaced workers (CAMP). Mag-email sa [email protected] o tumawag sa hotline 1349.” I don’t know if someone even thought of what would happen when millions of affected workers call a single hotline, or send an email with no data template to one public Google Mail account.
Where is the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) in all this? They could have crowd-sourced tools early on from our brilliant Filipino tech community, that surely are only too willing to offer their skills to help contain the dreaded epidemic. At least one organization I know had put an app-based tool to good use in responding to needs of victims of Supertyphoon “Yolanda”—but is now struggling to even get any serious attention from the IATF. And why can’t apps like the popular Waze be used, for example, to keep track of vehicles bearing critical supplies of food and other essential goods, and facilitate their unhampered passage through local checkpoints? Is DICT even given any major role in the IATF, knowing ICT was a primary tool in the touted good practices of South Korea and Singapore?
Unless we maximize ICT’s potentials against COVID-19, and quickly, we could be in for a much longer ECQ than we all could live with.
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