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Tackling the Covid-19 pandemic with digital solutions across Asia and the Pacific

This blog was written by Anju Mangal, A4AI Regional Coordinator, Asia-Pacific.

National governments around the world are working tirelessly to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. As the pandemic continues to spread around the world — across over 210 countries and territories to date — countries in the Asia-Pacific region are using information and communication technology (ICT) and digital solutions such as mobile apps and devices, artificial intelligence, open government data, and telemedicine to fight the virus and flatten the curve. 

The Republic of Korea had the second highest Covid-19 infection total in the world after China,  but was able to bring the spread of the virus under control and now has one of the lowest fatality rates. Digital solutions implemented in the Republic of Korea may provide valuable lessons for countries in Asia and the Pacific on how to respond to the pandemic, administer testing, contact trace and treat infections. 

To learn from this experience, I joined the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific ICT training centre (UNESCAP APCICT) to moderate an informative webinar — ‘How the Republic of Korea turned the tide on COVID-19 using ICT’ — that highlighted good practices and challenges from South Korea’s response. According to Kiyoung Ko, Director of APCICT/ESCAP, Korea’s effective use of digital technologies in testing, tracing and treating infections offers valuable lessons to other countries in their efforts to fight the pandemic. The webinar also featured presentations from the Philippines, India and Singapore on their response to the Covid-19 pandemic using ICT and digital solutions. 

Scaling up innovations and designing digital solutions to suit the local context is more effective and sustainable in the long-run. While each country highlighted a digital solution that was localised to suit their unique political, environmental and socio-economic context, these examples can provide important lessons for neighbouring countries and the region as a whole. Here are the key takeaways.

Emergency broadcasting services

The Republic of Korea implemented the Emergency Broadcasting Service to enable the government to transmit emergency alerts and text messages with the support of telecommunication providers in Korea. Such digital solutions have been developed in other Asia-Pacific countries to help with natural and manmade disaster response plans. The Republic of Korea also implemented measures such as the scam alert system in cooperation with three major telecommunication service providers which has the potential to have widespread impact. The scam alert system enhances response to scams such as phishing (by phone) and smishing (by SMS). Phone numbers used for phishing will be immediately suspended upon the report of the scam cases.

Artificial intelligence’s role

Artificial intelligence (AI) can quickly analyse large-scale data through high-performance computing resources. The Republic of Korea developed an artificial-intelligence based big data system to develop a test kit quickly – which would have taken 2 to 3 months without the AI system. 

Contact tracing apps

Singapore’s systematic and proactive strategy in containing and controlling Covid-19 has proven effective. However, the country still has the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Southeast Asia. Singapore developed TraceTogether, a contact-tracing smartphone app that enables the Ministry of Health (MoH) to quickly track people who have been exposed to confirmed coronavirus cases. The smartphone app uses Bluetooth signals and data is encrypted and stored only on your phone and only uploaded by the Ministry of Health (MoH) with the consent of the user. 

Connecting citizens to essential health services

The Government of India developed a mobile application for iOS and Android, Aarogya Setu, to connect essential health services to the people of India. The government of India is proactively reaching out to inform users of the app about health risks and best practices to contain Covid-19.

A few countries in Asia and the Pacific still face several challenges that may hinder their Covid-19 response, such as a lack of ICT infrastructure and e-government services and the limited availability of up-to-date accurate data. These challenges are also coupled with obstacles rising from the bureaucratic and legal environment, political leadership, and limited state capacity and resources. Scaling up and replicating the digital solutions, good practices and lessons learned in other parts of Asia and the Pacific both now and beyond this crisis will vary with the political, cultural and legal context and policy approaches.

In addition, less than 15 percent of the population in the region has access to high-speed Internet, and the situation in the least developed countries has not improved during the last 15 years, according to the latest report of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. These  countries will have a hard time catching up to countries like the Republic of Korea, Singapore, India and the Philippines. Policy reforms are critical to tackle this digital inequality. To complement the national and regional efforts of fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) and the Web Foundation recommend governments, companies and civil society take urgent actions to bring as many people online as possible during this crisis. 

Through knowledge sharing and coordinated efforts of organisations like UNESCAP-APCICT and A4AI and initiatives like the Asia Pacific Superhighway, countries in the Asia Pacific region could bring more people online and encourage their citizens to seize the benefits of the use of digital solutions to tackle Covid-19 crisis and beyond. APCICT/ESCAP, in particular, is strengthening its capacity building programmes for policymakers on leveraging ICT in disaster situations. Building on key partnerships and working together to address urgent issues will help us fight Covid-19 pandemic.

Read more about the webinar and watch the recording.

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