Mounting a digital defence in the fight against coronavirus

April 7, 2020


Coronavirus COVID-19 is one of the most serious global challenges we have seen in recent decades. The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called the pandemic the “greatest test since World War Two”.

Digital technology has the potential to mount an efficient response with online screening, real-time maps of confirmed cases, remote schooling, and doctors exchanging information about cases and treatments on social media and messengers apps. While millions of people have their livelihoods threatened, millions more have been able to work remotely. Digital is supporting the ‘social distancing’ necessary to combat the virus through online delivery and maintaining virtual social connections. Without it we would see a much grimmer picture.

In 2019, building on our strong history of innovation, UNDP launched our the digital strategy which enables us to transform the way we create new ideas and use technology to become more efficient and effective partners. In this pandemic the ways in which UNDP has adapted existing digital solutions and developing new tools to help countries fight the pandemic demonstrate the power of digital in a very immediate sense.

Supporting healthcare

Healthcare systems quickly become overwhelmed when COVID-19 hits. The concern is not only for those who might have the new virus but also for people who need other kinds of treatment. In Bangladesh we support the Aspire to Innovate (a2i) programme which has formed a public-private consortium linking to the government’s phone-based health service ‘Shastho Batayon’. Health tech startups provide digital health services while also encouraging social distancing. People can connect to doctors around the country through a toll-free hotline and an online portal. Some medical call services charge patients, but it’s less than a hospital visit.

In Uruguay, together with the National Emergency System, we’ve developed the MIRA platform which the government uses to coordinate its emergency response. It receives and follow up on requests, assigns tasks to the field response teams and communicates vital information to those affected. MIRA aggregates relevant information for decision-making and generates situation reports. We have added a function which tracks emergency beds across the country.

Fighting the coronavirus “infodemic”

Anxieties are growing and so it’s natural that people go online for answers. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to navigate the abundance of information about COVID-19. Together with the World Health Organization and UNICEF, we partnered with WhatsApp to provide accurate information to communities and local governments.

In Cabo Verde, together with a consortium of young entrepreneurs, experts from DevTrust, ZING Developers, Bonako and NOSI, the UNDP Accelerator Lab in partnership with the Government of Cabo Verde has developed a single and credible channel of official information. The public can use the website or mobile app to find the latest news about the coronavirus, its government’s response, and other helpful information.

Assessing the socio-economic impact

To develop new programmes and policy recommendations, we need to continuously assess. These assessments can come from secondary data, such as the number of confirmed cases or the number of business closures, and primary data--talking to people to understand their immediate and future needs and to learn how they are coping. Youth Co:Lab has conducted a rapid survey of young entrepreneurs across Asia-Pacific to assess the impacts of COVID-19 on their businesses. Four hundred and ten young entrepreneurs from 18 countries working in agriculture, retail, education, and technology took part. Half of them reported that their businesses slowed down or stopped altogether. But there were also stories of optimism, with youth-led enterprises developing new ways to help their communities.

UNDP has worked with a consortium of international NGOs REACH to adapt the Household and Building Damage Assessment tool to a Household Socio-Economic Impact Assessment (SEIA) tool to measure the impact of COVID-19 on families. SEIA involves a questionnaire which is adaptable to various contexts, a mobile digital data collection tool using Kobo Toolbox, data analysis, and a visualization frame in Microsoft Power BI. It is compatible with GIS and can be integrated into various analytical tools with the potential of speeding up assessments and decision making. As a result, we can get results in days rather than weeks.

The power of collective action

We can only fight this crisis together. The pandemic shines a light on opportunities for global cooperation. Countries are helping each other with medical supplies, companies are giving free access to their digital tools, and volunteers help vulnerable people in their communities. The UNDP Accelerator Lab in Azerbaijan and UNDP Ukraine are hosting virtual hackathons to find new solutions. Our Global Centre in Singapore has partnered with Hackster, a global community of 1.5 million engineers and developers, to launch an innovation challenge. We will be able to quickly catalyze and help coordinate open source, low cost, easy-to-produce hardware to prevent and detect COVID-19.

Embracing working and learning from home

Millions of children are not at school because of the pandemic. In Moldova, UNDP has supported the development of which digitalizes teaching. Teachers can upload video lessons, attach learning materials, and leave comments. The platform has electronic diaries and registers, the schedule of lessons, and the administration can generate periodic statistical reports.

We understand the challenge of switching to fully remote work. UNDP employs 17,000 people in more than 170 countries. Many are working from home for the first time. With Zoom licenses for thousands of colleagues and technical and wellbeing training, we try our best to support colleagues in these uncertain times. Building on this experience, UNDP Kazakhstan is upgrading digital, working from home and other critical skills of 1,000 civil servants, so they can continue serving the public remotely.

We are fully aware of the challenges in front of us. Too many people don’t have the internet and are deprived of the benefits of digitalization. The rising data privacy concerns need open and inclusive public consultation. Despite tech giants’ efforts to stop misinformation, dangerous rumours and “fake news” continue to spread. And as new tech solutions are created every day, many of those replicate already existing efforts. Identifying and scaling tools that work is one of the biggest challenges in a decentralized organization such as  UNDP. The digital transformation might be accelerated by the crisis, but much more work is ahead of us. With the digital strategy in place, we are prepared for the challenge.

This story was written by UNDP’s Chief Digital Office. If you would like to learn more about the examples here or if you would like to share your own experience with digital and COVID-19, please get in touch with us at digital at undp dot org.