Technology and COVID-19: Digital policy issues abound

David Wu | International Trade & Economy Fellow

The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis that has spilled over into the economy and society.

The response to the present pandemic in many countries has integrated digital communication technologies. In doing so, these responses have laid bare pressing challenges when it comes to the wide-spread adoption of new technologies. Addressing these challenges will require new policies and practices domestically, as well as multilateral cooperation abroad.

The ongoing pandemic has, as reported on 12 April, claimed over 105,000 lives with more than 1.6 million cases the world over. Frighteningly, these figures underestimate the true human toll, given the ability of the virus to overwhelm hospital systems and testing capabilities in the hardest hit cities.

In Australia, at least 59 lives have been lost, with 6,300 confirmed cases in total. There are promising signs suggesting the curve of daily new cases is flattening in response to government, business and societal measures. But the path forward remains fraught given that a vaccine may not be ready until early 2021 or later.

The impact of the pandemic on the economy has also been severe.

The OECD estimates that the initial direct impact of the pandemic could be a decline in economic output of 20–25 per cent in many countries. Without an effective policy response, they estimate that this is equivalent to a decline in economic growth of up to 2 percentage points for each month that strict containment measures continue.

The ILO estimates a 6.7 per cent decline in working hours across the global economy—equivalent to 230 million full-time workers being out of work.

The Australian economy is predicted to shrink by 3.9 per cent this year with unemployment reaching 8.5 per cent by mid-year. Given the dire outlook, the Reserve Bank has targeted a historically low cash rate and yield on government bonds of 0.25 per cent.

Together with a A$320 billion stimulus plan led by the Treasury, the intention is to mitigate hardship during the prolonged shutdown of economic activity and encourage an economic bounce back as pandemic measures are gradually lifted.

The pandemic has changed how societies function. The health response has demanded the shutting down of most physical work spaces, stores and shops, and the cancellation of most in-person social gatherings.

Most social interactions that occurred physically must now occur digitally, or not at all.

The infectiousness of COVID-19 has caused the unprecedented prominence of digital communication technologies in all aspects of everyday life. Indeed, these technologies have also permeated the health and economic responses to the pandemic.

The challenges posed by new technologies have never been so pressing.

As part of their pandemic response, some countries, including Singapore and South Korea, have implemented digital contact tracing to seemingly great effect. Discussions surrounding such an approach elsewhere, including in Australia, have been vexed by privacy concerns.

Digital contact tracing involves using personal digital data—at the least, mobile-phone location data—to determine who might have come in close proximity to an infected individual and then alerting those individuals, potentially even revealing the infected individual’s surname or address.

Even so, given the resources involved in traditional contact tracing, many governments and companies have justifiably expressed strong interest in developing the capabilities to implement such an approach. The Australian government is evaluating the TraceTogether app, developed and implemented by the Singaporean government, while Apple and Google are collaborating to develop a suite of tools.

While the trade-off between privacy and information is justifiable to many given the severity of the present pandemic, applications of big data elsewhere will continue to push this trade-off past comfortable thresholds.

As interactions move online, the widespread adoption of video and other digital communication tools—most prominently, US platform Zoom—has accelerated. The ability of such platforms to enable a substantial portion of economic and social activity to continue is threatened by cybersecurity issues.

There have been incidents of uninvited participants disrupting digital board rooms and classrooms—so-called “Zoom bombing”—as well as concerns about the storage and processing of data across borders.

To address these cybersecurity issues, organisations will need to develop new norms surrounding the use of digital communication tools. Software providers will also need to pay greater attention to creating safe digital spaces.

For their part, governments will need to develop cybersecurity and privacy standards. Such standards should satisfy domestic preferences without rigidly stifling the storage and processing of data domestically or its transfer abroad for productive purposes. To this end, increased multilateral cooperation through institutions like the WTO on international data flow standards is necessary.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated the role of digital communication technologies in everyday life. Resolving difficulties across cybersecurity and privacy will require new norms and policies, both at home and abroad. The challenges posed have never been so urgent and the opportunities so important.


David Wu is International Trade & Economy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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