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The Financial Express

Data driven Covid-19 responses

Md Zarif Tajwar Shihab | Published: May 07, 2020 11:50:13 | Updated: May 07, 2020 14:27:35


File photo used for representational purpose File photo used for representational purpose

The novel coronavirus has put the entire world to a halt. Most of the globe is on lockdown to slow the death toll and flatten the curve of this pandemic. The lockdown comes with problems of its own. People losing their livelihoods, businesses shutting down, governments being forced to print money while economies are drowning. The world is engulfed in an apocalyptic atmosphere. Everything is uncertain and people just want this pandemic to end.

All governments have one common goal, to restrict the spread of Covid-19 with minimum economic backlash. In countries like Bangladesh with a dense population and a lack of testing kits the only plausible option to contain the pandemic is a complete lockdown. Economic implications are secondary when pitted against human lives. However, the lockdown cannot go on forever otherwise we will lose lives from starvation. So, when the time comes to relax the lockdown the government can adopt the measures taken by oriental countries like South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong to ensure that infections do not spike.

The aforementioned countries, which were successful in fighting the pandemic had one thing in common, they all implemented big data. Let's consider South Korea's response to understand how. The government of the Oriental giant collaborated with telecommunication providers to track people. Apps for this have been in use since February. Some apps used public government data to show users their distance to a confirmed Covid-19 patient. The date of confirmation along with demographic data and location history is displayed.

'Corona 100' is an app that alerted South Koreans when they were within 100 metres of a location passed by a Covid-19 patient. Drones were then deployed to disinfect those areas. Augmenting that, an app "self-health check" allowed users to keep tabs on foreign visitors. A separate app altogether was developed to monitor people in quarantine. Essentially ensuring that foreign returnees from high risk areas or positive tested Covid-19 patients maintain physical distancing. People were tracked by WhatsApp and another government developed app which they had to install upon government orders. This way the government could monitor people who were supposed to be in quarantine due to entering the country from a highly infected region or due to testing positive for Covid-19.

The app updated people in quarantine on the number of days they have to stay indoors. If they went out during this time, their phones would make a noise allowing police to identify them. These people were provided necessary supplies during this period to eliminate any reason for them to leave their lodgings. The use of big data enabled South Korea to flatten its curve and not incur a staggering number of infections without having to completely shut down the country. Selective quarantine of potential carriers was strongly enforced.

America, Britain, Germany, Ireland and many other countries are developing such apps. Furthermore, on April 10, Apple and Google, two companies with access to almost every single smartphone on earth announced collaboration. The target of this venture is to combine their reach to assist tracking on a global scale. The underlying technology is the unifying update to Bluetooth short-range wireless protocols. This will enable contact tracing apps to be built to work on either platform. The apps under development will now be built to work in this ecosystem. A contact tracing app will broadcast a string of characters unique to the device. These broadcasts will be detectable by any other handset carrying that app in nine metres proximity. Simultaneously an app will capture strings broadcasted from other phones and subsequently record those. Thus, each phone will have a record of all the other phones it was close to. Transmitted strings change once in 15 minutes and recordings are only stored in the receiving phone making it more immune to hackers. When it comes to a positive tested candidate, this ecosystem operates differently. Different strings of characters, one string depicting each day the person may still be a carrier, are broadcast to every other device in the network.

The use of data in the fight against this pandemic may be the answer to stop future infection spikes once the initial curve flattens and lockdowns are relaxed. Because if history has taught us anything, Hong Kong with its initial success released quarantine measures completely and saw 62 new infections in a day. A lot of the other relatively successful countries have seen the same. Countries may need to maintain selective quarantine well into 2021.

As for Bangladesh where a great proportion of the population do not own smartphones this solution may not be fully implementable. Hence, the application of data driven responses against this pandemic in Bangladesh needs further research and discussion.

Something is better than nothing. The government already possesses its people's data due to digital NIDs. So, when the curve eventually flattens the government can implement selective lockdown in the big cities where population density is the highest. This coupled with the continuation awareness campaigns preaching self-quarantine in case of fevers, maintaining overall physical distance of three feet, frequent handwashing and avoiding unnecessary contact can help to ensure no sudden spike in cases occur. It is pertinent to ensure the avoidance of another lockdown as the economic implications may be too much to bear again for several people.

The writer is a third-year student of BBA programme at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka. He can be reached at zariftajwar4@gmail.com

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