Spotlight Leader: The tech response to a pandemic

Why data is key to defeating Covid-19.

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A s the coronavirus pandemic rages worldwide, the response of one country is being held up as an example to follow. South Korea, which initially suffered the worst Covid-19 outbreak outside of China, has reportedly been managing to contain its spread. Quick action, forward planning and widespread testing have led to a low casualty rate, estimated at just below 1 per cent of infected people. 

Tech and data science have been a key, if controversial, part of South Korea’s response. People with a mobile phone receive alerts about locations of infection so that they can avoid those areas. A government GPS-enabled app monitors citizens under quarantine. There are thorny ethical questions around the use of personal health data combined with surveillance technology. Those questions aside, however, tech’s role in responses to this pandemic has brought into focus the importance of data. Not only is it vital in rapidly responding to a major public health crisis, but also in delivering healthcare today.

Asked how the Chinese reorganised their medical response to deal with the outbreak, Dr Bruce Aylward of the World Health Organisation said: “First, they moved 50 per cent of all medical care online so people didn’t come in.” As much of the world heads into lockdown, virtual solutions will enable people to continue receiving medical treatment, including for non-virus related issues, while keeping infections at a minimum. Speaking this month, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the UK was taking a “digital-first approach” to tackling the virus.

Now more than ever digital solutions have the potential to save healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed by demand. The NHS faces a number of issues, however. Not all households have internet access, and older patients, those most vulnerable to the virus, use the internet at far lower rates than the rest of the population. Further, the inability of a fragmented NHS to store and manage data effectively, and to deal with reasonable privacy concerns around data-sharing, hampers digital potential.

When this crisis is over, the healthcare system could be revolutionised by the increased use of digital services and data science that lockdown and social distancing is forcing us into. But if it is to be sustainable, the government must make sure that such a system leaves no one behind – and that it can effectively, and responsibly, make use of data.

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