Comment: Dr Sally Uren of Forum for the Future explains that treating Covid-19 as a systemic challenge could help governments pilot a fair and equitable path out of lockdown

A friend of my 19-year-old daughter had her phone battery die on her early one morning in Taiwan. This was in March, as the Covid-19 pandemic was rapidly taking hold globally, and she had recently returned from the UK to complete her studies. A half hour later, at 7.30am, the police were knocking on her door, making sure she was still in quarantine for her allocated 14 days post-arrival in the country.

Is this pandemic monitoring and surveillance a violation of our privacy? Or is it simply a responsible action to keep us safe?

Since the start of the global Covid-19 pandemic, at least 27 countries have already relaxed, or have made provision to relax, data privacy rules, including Europe, the UK and the US. In many Asian countries, governments are using phone location data to track and communicate with their populations on an individual basis.

Finding the balance between health protection, data protection and civil liberties is a truly complex challenge

In some of these, such as Taiwan, data is being collected to measure adherence to self-isolation directives and to track social contact. And some countries are now going even further. Dubai has just released a permit scheme, powered by an app, requiring individual citizens to seek permission to leave the house, and being enforced by the police.

The World Health Organization is fully behind technological measures to test and trace, with the rapid development and uptake of technology presenting an opportunity to monitor, control and even predict the spread of this – and future – public health emergencies. This “digital herd protection” through contact-tracing apps is one of the big bets for lockdown exit strategies being developed by several governments, including the UK.

Yet these developments must be taken with caution.

A German shop prepares to re-open as governments globally contemplate lockdown exits. (Credit: Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters)

Increased monitoring and control has the potential to further disadvantage the poorest and most vulnerable in society, who might not have access to smart phones. Cybersecurity is also a risk; there have already been instances of personal data being leaked. And what’s to stop our personal data being monetised, or used in some more authoritarian nation states to clamp down on civil and human rights? Finally, what about our basic rights? Surely we should be able to decide when we can leave our own houses?

Finding the balance between health protection, data protection and civil liberties is a truly complex challenge. And exactly the type of challenge that would benefit from a systemic approach as it:

  • Is difficult to address, and continuously evolving

  • Remains ambiguous, without a thorough understanding of its full implications. As such, there are no clear criteria for when the problem is “solved”

  • Is unique, with no precedent for known solutions

  • Involves many stakeholders and perspectives, with potentially conflicting views across ethical, moral, cultural, social, political, legal (and many more) grounds

  • Has interconnected causes and drivers which are part of a dynamic ecosystem

A systemic approach has three main characteristics. First, it requires a diagnosis of the challenge, in other words a thorough understanding of all the direct and indirect issues. For our central question – how might we utilise personal data to protect us, not violate or exclude us – this means having a really clear understanding of all the unintended consequences of collecting and storing data.

Fundamentally, we need to urge decision-makers to make shifts in how they approach this challenge

Second, interventions and approaches need to be designed with clear positive outcomes in mind. In this case, governments should be striving for positive health impacts. Nothing else.

Lastly, assumptions need to be clear, and tested. The assumption is that current plans for digital herd protection will need greater than 80% take up. Is this fair? If not, how does the design need to change?

Accepting this complex problem as a systemic challenge then offers some clues as to how decision-makers in governments and individual citizens might navigate it, and in doing so create outcomes that meet the needs of public health protection, data privacy and equity.

A police officer stands next to a police robot at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport. (Credit: Aly Song/Reuters)

Fundamentally, we need to urge decision-makers to make shifts in how they approach this challenge and I see four that are particularly important right now. The first is to move from a typical crisis response, namely a focus on short-term, incremental and technical solutions, towards a set of activities and even experiments based in a solid diagnosis of the issues that is shared with key stakeholders (namely, us as citizens).

The second is a shift from individual governments trying to solve this enormous challenge alone, either at a state or federal level, to collaboration. This will rapidly accelerate progress.

Number three is tough: we need to see a shift from linear plans towards definitive goals to working with hypotheses on the most impactful routes to change. Working with hypotheses requires the fourth and perhaps most difficult shift, from an approach rooted in certainty and order, to one that allows us to learn, continuously adapt and find the most effective way forward.

We must each accept there is no 'right' answer to this challenge; only then can we make progress in navigating its complexity

Adaptation is critical. The Covid-19 landscape is changing on an almost hourly basis. Fixed linear plans – delivered without constantly questioning assumptions, learning and pivoting directions – quite simply, will not help us navigate one of the biggest societal challenges associated with this pandemic.

Finally, and fundamentally, we must each accept that there is no “right” answer to this challenge; only then can we make progress in navigating its complexity.

Beyond this acceptance and the shifts outlined above, it’s time to urge the universal adoption of the principles of equity, transparency and fairness. If this happens, we may just be able to avoid the dark side of what was once private, becoming too public.

Dr Sally Uren OBE, is chief executive officer of Forum for the Future.

Main picture credit: Visiondreams/Shutterstock


This commentary is part of our in-depth briefing Building back better: Ethical Corporation examines what Covid-19 will mean for sustainability


Covid-19  WHO  privacy  tracing apps  cybersecurity  Human rights  Taiwan 

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