Corona app

Focusing on technology to solve the corona crisis distracts from the much wider problem

Science Works 5 min. Corine Schouten

This summer many holidaymakers will rely on the EU vaccination QR code to travel around safely while at the same time the delta variant of the corona virus is gaining ground. Does this and other technology such as track & tracing apps help to solve the crisis? Tilburg Law School researcher Dr. Linnet Taylor argues that European governments are relying too much on technology because that is easier than taking a wide array of social measures. She leads the Global Data Justice Project, seeking to understand how data serves the public interest.

You study data justice with a grant from the European Research Council. Why is it such an important subject?

In the last decades it has become very apparent that the rules we have to regulate technology and to deal with how data works in society are not sufficient to serve the public interest. If we want technology to be in line with the principles of justice, then we need to think more broadly. Data justice is about how broad we need to be and whose interests we need to consider.

What is your view on the way the Dutch government used technology in the corona crisis?

Those of us who study data justice generally had the impression that it was quite a solutionist approach. Actually a lot of governments particularly in Europe latched on to this because addressing a problem with technology is much easier than addressing it with continuing and restrictive social measures.

Linnet Taylor

“We’re leaving people behind and the tech can’t solve that”

It led to a big discussion about privacy, individual rights, and all sorts of things that were not related to the prevalence of the virus. I’m not sure that the tech is really that relevant to the problem. The problem is so broad and so deep. We’re leaving people behind and the tech can’t solve that.

So what should the governments have done?

What we have seen in particularly Southeast Asian countries that performed well in this crisis is that what we really need is first of all adequate testing. Second, human led contact tracing because people respond much better to a request from a human being to isolate. And third support for people to isolate. These are very broad socio-technical questions that are not addressed by the Dutch CoronaMelder tracing app for instance in any way.

But the Dutch government did introduce testing, contact tracing and isolation measures – what went wrong?

The government didn’t do a great job of communicating why people had to socially distance, for instance because the virus could be passed through the air inside, or that children could transmit the virus. It also didn’t do a great job in communicating that it wasn’t just about washing your hands, and that testing and tracing was vitally important. What were you supposed to do when you got ten notifications a day by the CoronaMelder? What if your boss demanded you go to work? The tech was fine, it just wasn’t embedded in a set of strategies and policies that would help it to take effect.

But is must be very difficult to get that right in a crisis.

Of course it is! But there are examples of particularly Southeast Asian countries which did it better and they notably did not rely on an anonymous app. We saw apps in combination with policy be much more effective in countries where data was centralized, where the app was combined with human checking and where people trusted the government’s policy. People in Europe saw this approach as some sort of an Asian values question, whereas actually you could see it as an effective corona virus policy.

Why do you think Southeast Asian countries did so well?

These countries had already been through several epidemics like SARS and MERS. They’d been preparing for the last 20, 30 years for this pandemic, actually with the help of all the funders in the world. There was a lot of trust in these countries in both the tech and the governments. Also the disease was not politicized. Hongkong for instance did extremely well against the virus with just over 200 deaths to date, and it is a massive travel hotspot for the world.

Is the European digital travel certificate another example of failing policy?

I’ve just published a paper on this with other researchers. We focused on the extent to which certification of immunity or vaccination distracts from the broader problem of vaccinating as many people as possible and making the environment safe for travel. Communications out of Brussels are emphasizing the benefits of a QR code on your smartphone certifying vaccination and claiming that therefore it is safe for everyone to travel. But of course it is the other way around. The safer we become the fewer measures we need. Certifying people is neither here nor there if infections are increasing.

I’m very concerned about the political rhetoric about certification getting in the way of our ability to remain flexible which is what we really need. Israel is a good example here. They were the first to fully vaccinate everyone, the first with a Green Pass which was embedded in a wider policy and also the first to drop the Green Pass when it was no longer necessary. In fact now the facemasks are back again. I’m hoping that Brussels can convey that this is not a permanent status. We have to continually balance concessions of people’s individual freedoms with our ability to combat the virus.

“We have to look at the rest of the world and focus on distributing vaccines. I think it’s going to be the deciding factor”

Moreover, we have to look at the rest of the world and focus on distributing vaccines. It really matters that we think inclusively about this, not because it is a luxury but because it’s completely relevant right now. It is at the core of how we get out of this disease. I think it’s going to be the deciding factor.

But should we not get our economy going again as well, since many people are in trouble because of the measures?

Absolutely! And the way we get the economy going is by reducing the prevalence of the virus. In our paper we argue that we should step away from what we call the ‘immunity theatre’ and focus on how we get the economy going in the long term. If we are prepared to compromise we can do absolutely fine, both economically and in protecting our vulnerable people. We don’t have enough discussions on what those compromises are.

So we also need more communication and debate?

I think so yes. It’s very obvious in the Netherlands at least that we have left large chunks of society behind in discussing what we need to do and how to make the right compromises. There are people on one end of the spectrum who are all about the science and not about the social consequences. In the middle there are people who are suspicious about for instance the vaccines or the measures and how effective they are. On the other extreme you have conspiracy theorists who join up to all sorts of political streams. In the EU we don’t have a good sense of how to work along that whole spectrum. It has led to a lot of politicization of public health which is continually causing problems for our ability to combat the virus.

You sketch a complicated picture – are you pessimistic about the future?

No, I’m really not. In Europe we now realize that we need to take a broad approach. This is not just a health problem but also an economic problem, a political problem, a societal problem. In Southeast Asia this was already realized in the early 2000s, when they had SARS. Foundations and research groups and all sorts of international organizations have put a lot of effort to solving this over the last decades. If we turn these resources onto ourselves we might become very good at dealing with this, hopefully in a shorter timeframe.

Particularly, we need to build capacity in civil society to coordinate responses and to push back against the weakening of international institutions such as the United Nations and the WHO over the last decades.  We need better connections between individual people and those institutions as well as governments to build trust. We need to represent the underrepresented and not leave that to extremist political parties. We can collectively do better than that.