Before the pandemic, the hype about Asia was that it was winning the race to narrow the region’s deep digital divide. Analysts cited growing penetration rates for smart phone and internet usage, the availability of digital identity tools, and the proliferation of mobile payment and e-commerce platforms as tangible evidence.
These trend lines remain positive but COVID-19 is also proving that Asia’s digital platforms, driven by the state or the private sector, are not built to scale to either deal with a pandemic or the economic impact of the lockdown.
This is exacerbating the region’s inequalities as the two segments hit hardest by the pandemic, the poor and the old, are the least likely to have smart digital access or digital proficiency. Rather than pursue an inclusive approach to expand access and economic opportunity, the all-powerful state in Asia is also doubling down on surveillance and reducing the space for public debate.
Offline and online governance
There have been a few notable successes in dealing with the pandemic of course, which the region should build on, but the distinguishing feature in all of these cases is that digital tools work best when the country has a resilient public health system. Where these systems are less resilient and effective, there is overwhelming evidence that digital tools - contact tracing, identifying hot spots, and facilitating welfare payments - have seriously fallen short. This point is worth highlighting because technology is only a tool to help drive favourable public policy outcomes.
Another challenge in Asia is that governments are struggling to combine offline and online governance. This was most evident in India where the state has provided digital identity to over a billion citizens, but welfare benefits were still delivered offline, where poor people have had to queue up to receive financial and food support.
India’s signature digital stack comprising digital identity, bank accounts for the poor, and mobile money transfers have seized up when it comes to placing money directly in the hands of poor migrants. In striking contrast, after stumbling with the initial response, China has been more successful by instituting one of the world’s most rigid and intrusive lockdowns to contain the virus.
Three emerging models
Asian governments will eventually take stock of the efficacy of digital tools in dealing with the pandemic. However, they are likely to come away with the firm conclusion that increased surveillance of citizens is the only path forward to combat a public health emergency. This approach will spill over to other aspects of command and control by the state. In this regard, there are three emerging models in Asia which will have serious implications for privacy and citizens’ rights in our post-pandemic lives. They include:
The first model is coercive, exemplified by China’s successful effort to contain the pandemic via intrusive surveillance of people’s daily movements to establish if they were near a virus hotspot. On the face of it, this is a smart digital intervention, to map where the virus is spreading and to identify groups of people who may be spreading the virus or falling victim to it.
The widespread use of ‘immunity passports’ in China, through a mandatory health app for all citizens, essentially validates their ability to move outside of their homes and access public transport. This is a laudable initiative until you realize that this tool will also enable the Chinese authorities to scale up use of the social credit system, which will score citizens on their adherence to laws.
The hukou system, which currently regulates where Chinese citizens can live and work, will also become digital as a result of this initiative. The space for Chinese dissidents or those opposed to the regime will become ever smaller, enabling the all-powerful state to regulate the lives of citizens through a massive digital surveillance platform. Besides China, Asia’s coercive states include Vietnam (which has handled the pandemic very well), Cambodia, and Laos.
The second model is persuasive, where citizens have a reasonably high level of trust in their governments and have provided consent for the state to deploy intrusive digital tools to contain the pandemic. Here South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Mongolia and to a more limited extent Japan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Thailand stand out as nations where offline and online governance systems are aligned and the state is able to make aggressive public health interventions, building on their experience with previous epidemics.
An important reason why persuasive states are successful is the high degree of transparency and openness. Political leaders in these countries have been candid about the public risks of the pandemic and citizens enjoy easy access to public health data.
In the post-pandemic phase, governments will want to remain vigilant and the intrusive digital tools may remain in place as long as the government enjoys public support. This serves as a check against the state wishing to scale digital tools to keep tabs on the activities of citizens. On the global stage, persuasive states include New Zealand, Germany, France, Canada, and Italy, and even the UK, where the National Health Service (NHS) has proven to be resilient compared with the febrile political class.
The third Asian model is apathetic, where the state is indifferent or has limited capacity to effectively deploy digital tools to deal with a public health emergency. At the same time, the state selectively uses digital instruments to enhance surveillance, limit free speech, and prevent dissemination of information to citizens.
Here India is a stand-out nation for being brutally effective in shutting down the internet altogether to deal with a political crisis (Kashmir) but unable to put together a cohesive national strategy to deal with the pandemic, with tools like Aadhar which is world-beating in terms of providing every Indian with a unique digital identity.
India has the state capacity to do significantly better compared with fellow democratic nations Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, which have all stumbled in handling the pandemic. Apathetic nations, particularly democratic ones, will inevitably face a course correction as citizens have the right to exercise their franchise in the next elections. On the global stage, there are far too many apathetic states – the US, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and many more.
The role of big tech
What is the role of the private sector and civil society in helping governments deal with future national emergencies? Big tech firms operating in Asia, both home-grown and global variants, can play a critical role in preparing governments and citizens to deal with crisis, be it through another pandemic or a climate-related emergency.
They have access to vast troves of valuable data on their servers, tracking the location, behaviours, and preferences of users. More critically, platforms like Facebook, Baidu, and increasingly India’s Jio Platforms are primary disseminators and sources of news and information to their users. There are understandable concerns about privacy and fake news, areas where the big tech platforms have failed to build public confidence, but what if some of this convening power could be used for the public good?
One way of achieving this is through the establishment of an emergency response platform - bringing together governments (perhaps persuasive states to start with), multilateral institutions, civil society, and big tech firms to sign a digital compact to deal with future crises.
The crisis could be climate-related or even a future pandemic. A major step forward would be in sharing best practice and agreeing to harmonize how digital tools would be deployed to help the most impacted, to push back against state surveillance, agree on the best approach for dissemination of timely information to the public, and a joint commitment to protect customer privacy and human rights. These steps could prove to be a more effective alternative to what we have witnessed during the last few months where countries rich and poor have struggled. The international community should get more persuasive.