The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the way nations around the world use technology in public health. As the virus spread globally, some nations responded by closing businesses, shuttering schools, limiting gatherings, and banning travel. Many also deployed varied technological tools and systems to track virus exposure, monitor outbreaks, and aggregate hospital data.
Even as the frenzy of emergency responses begins to subside, the emergent forms of surveillance that have accompanied this new normal persist. As a consequence, societies face new questions about how to manage the monitoring systems created in response to the virus, what processes are required in order to immunise populations, and what new norms the systems have generated. How they answer these questions will have long-term impacts on civil liberties, governance, and the role of technology in society. The systems implemented amid the public health emergency could jeopardise individual freedoms and exacerbate harms to already vulnerable groups, particularly if they are adapted to operate as permanent social management tools. At the same time, growing public awareness about the impact of public health technologies could also provide a catalyst for strengthening democratic engagement and demonstrating the urgency of improving governance systems. As the world transitions in and out of pandemic crisis modes, there is an opportunity to think broadly about strengthening public health systems, policymaking, and the underlying structure of our social compacts.
The Social Science Research Council has established several goals in this analysis of pandemic responses:
- Improve health justice by advancing principles for access to public health resources in a manner free from unbridled surveillance
- Identify strategies for responsible use of technology in public health crises
- Frame issues for future inquiry and research about the balance of privacy and rights with public health efficacy
This report does not seek to offer a comprehensive guide to particular technologies or policy responses. Instead, it maps a range of social fault lines and data-related challenges that the pandemic has raised. In the process, it highlights some emerging best practices and lessons learned that can guide future emergency responses.