Why We Need a Tech-Led Approach to Beat COVID-19
By Anir Chowdhury
The World Health Organization has predicted that the current COVID-19 death toll of more than 1 million will likely double before a vaccine is developed and rolled out. I believe this is avoidable if the world follows the example of densely populated, developing countries like Bangladesh and integrates cutting-edge tech solutions with long-established disease control principles to create technological epidemiology.
Many countries are experiencing second waves, and it is becoming clear that many of the measures taken have merely delayed, rather than eliminated, the dangers of the virus.
The current plan in much of the world — rolling lockdowns, social distancing where possible, wearing masks — can slow the spread, but not to a level where significant unnecessary deaths can be avoided.
Many governments are simply trying to buy time until a vaccine is found. However, a viable vaccine is certainly not guaranteed, and its adoption by skeptical pockets of populations and its global rollout is another matter entirely (the United Kingdom and the United States, two of the richest countries in the world, took almost 30 years to eradicate polio after a vaccine was first produced in the 1950s).
In the face of criticism, many governments have repeated the mantra that they are led by “The Science.” This neglects two things: First, epidemiologists are divided, often bitterly, about the best formulation of social distancing and lockdowns, meaning there is science but not The Science.
Self-isolation, whether it’s 14 days or 40, is not a cutting-edge health policy.
This is a convenient — and perhaps necessary — simplification. The prominence of scientific advisers like Sir Patrick Vallance in the U.K. and Dr. Anthony Fauci in the U.S. is perhaps just as important as the leadership of elected heads of states. Citizens want to know that their elected officials are led by cutting-edge expertise, not merely politics.
What no one is acknowledging is that much of The Science being followed is actually very dated.
Epidemiology is defined as the study and analysis of the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations. This sounds like exactly what we need more of during a pandemic, but are we always using the latest methods to carry out this important work?
The word “quarantine” comes from quarantena, meaning “40 days,” used in 14th-century Venice to designate the period that all ships were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore during the Black Death. Self-isolation, whether it’s 14 days or 40, is not a cutting-edge health policy.
Many of the methods used by John Snow, one of the fathers of modern epidemiology, to fight 19th-century cholera outbreaks were carried through to the 20th-century Spanish flu and remain fundamentally unchanged. The tools used then — lockdowns and face masks — are almost identical to those used today.
This is not to dispute the effectiveness of social distancing and personal protective equipment when used correctly. But how many other scientific fields rely on the same methods today that they did a century ago?
Science is about more than epidemiology. Almost all scientific fields have benefited from big data, algorithms and other methods that have only come of age in the last decade, rather than the last century.
Some of the epidemiologists and decision-makers are, even at a more micro level, not relying on the state-of-the-art tools that should be at their disposal during a crisis. For example, the Imperial College London team whose analysis has been key to British government policy was using a model built 13 years ago.
This is a sign of two things: lack of investment in public health, and the field being viewed in isolation rather than as an interdisciplinary space that cuts across public health, data science, information and communication technology (ICT) and strategic public policy.
In almost every country, this is a challenge for different ministries and public services that are used to operating independently. But as I have seen since the founding of Bangladesh’s Aspire to Innovate (a2i) Program as part of the government’s Digital Bangladesh agenda, the investment is definitely worth it.
Directly guided for more than a decade by the prime minister and her ICT adviser, and run from the Prime Minister’s Office (the political nerve center), the Cabinet Office (the administrative nerve center) and the ICT Ministry (the technological nerve center), the a2i team was uniquely placed to make sure that every part of the government’s pandemic response utilized the best tech and interdisciplinary science.
Although Bangladesh has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and a substantial domestic medical and pharmaceutical sector, Dhaka is the most densely populated city on Earth. Many feared that our capital, with multigenerational families living in close quarters to one another, would be ground zero for a COVID bloodbath.
The reality has been very different, with a death toll that is among the lowest in the world. Much of this success is due to us analyzing phone call and mobility data from telecommunications companies to intelligently target hyperlocal lockdowns where and when required; using telemedicine to treat COVID patients over the phone and identify and shield the most vulnerable; and computing appropriate capacity plans using data and allowing finite health services to be present where needed.
A tech-led approach using big data and real-time algorithms (in addition to academic models) is allowing livelihoods to continue, while lives are saved.
Too many countries are ignoring these methods and allowing only outdated approaches to dictate how we deal with the pandemic.
Now more than ever, government departments must work together to create the solutions their populations need and craft the policy changes that can help societies and economies adapt and evolve in the years ahead. We can avoid the WHO’s catastrophic prediction and save a million lives if we let “The Tech” — as well as “The Science” — facilitate our journey.
Anir Chowdhury is a U.S. techpreneur turned Bangladeshi govpreneur serving as the policy adviser of the Bangladeshi government’s flagship digital transformation program, a2i. He is a member of the Prime Minister’s Digital Bangladesh Task Force.
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