Whenever disruption happens, the ability to withstand the disruption is dependent on the capacity to adapt to the new normal. People and organizations seek tools and resources that can make it easier for them to adapt, making it possible for them to survive the tough times. This was the case with the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the world was disrupted, people turned to technology as a tool to help them cope with the new normal. Technology helped the world continue working away from the office, get shopping and supplies delivered to homes, maintain social distance, monitor vaccine rollout, perform contact tracing, share news about the spread of the virus, keep students learning, and many more. Without tech solutions, it would have been harder for the world to cope.
However, there are some downsides to the use of technology in mitigating the impacts of Covid-19 and helping people cope. We look at how tech-driven solutions were applied after Covid-19 and some of the dangers that they pose to users.
Contact tracing and social distancing apps have been used to help monitor people for contact with people infected with the virus. This is a key step to curbing the spread of Covid-19, considering that the primary means of spread is through exposure to infected persons. Since it was hard to know if the people you came into contact with were carrying the virus, the apps would let one know if they had come into contact with a person who later turned positive. This is a useful piece of technology helping with contact tracing.
However, the use of these tools has not been without a downside. There was a lot of concern about user privacy with these tech-driven solutions. First, the Big Tech has not been known to be very privacy-conscious, unless when pushed to do be so. Some of the business models employed by tech companies are dependent on not being very stringent on privacy, and privacy concerns have majorly been implemented as afterthoughts. This raises concern that most tech companies cannot be trusted to make decisions that put users first, as far as privacy is concerned.
Would these tech-driven solutions compromise privacy? Already, we have seen people raise concerns that tools that are logging location and sharing it with third parties could be a concern. However, technology companies worked to assure people that their data was safe. Would people believe that? Not everybody.
This was about contact tracing, but there are other areas of concern when it comes to privacy. A different application is tools that have been used to monitor exams remotely. While these have made it easier for remote learning to continue, most users were not aware of how such tools work. The tools are invasive and users should have been educated on how to ensure that their privacy is catered for during and after the exams.
Exclusion and Digital Divide
In the world today, technology seems to be everywhere, especially when we look from the perspective of tech-savvy people and digital natives. However, this is not a very accurate depiction of the world today. There are still many people who lag behind in terms of technology adoption.
In Kenya, it is not easy to implement digital technologies in rural areas. Some areas are limited by infrastructure. Digital literacy is also low and income levels are also wanting. These are some of the hindrances that tech driven solutions to Covid-19 would need to overcome.
With this background, it is evident that some people will not benefit from many tech driven interventions. People without smartphones cannot use contact tracing apps. People without mobile phones may not be alerted when their second dose of vaccine is due. Those without power may not be aware about the spread of Covid-19 because they do not have access to the news.
Technology could easily lead to exclusion because people do not have access to the same resources. A classic example is the education sector, where there were attempts to make learning online in Kenya, but with mixed results. Children from wealthy backgrounds have access to the internet and computers, making it easy for them to keep learning even when schools are closed. On the other hand, students from poor backgrounds couldn’t afford to be online. The longer the schools were closed, the poorer children continued to be disadvantaged. While technology was hailed as a game changer in the age of Covid-19, the same technology was helping widen the inequality levels.
Making Tech Driven Solutions Work
The problems highlighted above are unintended consequences of technology-driven solutions. This means that they can be worked around so that tech solutions can be more accessible and inclusive, and the welfare of users is taken care of.
One of the approaches is to control the influence and participation of for-profit companies in designing and implementing these tech solutions. Public health solutions need to be spearheaded by the institutions that primarily deal with public health and not tech companies. This will ensure that commercial interests do not override the safety concerns of the users.
The use of tech driven solutions should not be taken as a master fix in solving Covid-19 related problems. They need to be supplemented with other solutions so that not part of the society will be excluded due to lack of resources, connectivity or skills. For example, the approach to remote learning involved the use of different technologies and tools. Teachers could use WhatsApp because more students had it. Learning programs were also put on radio and TV, increasing the reach. That was also not enough because some people would still be left out. At one point, the government was asking teachers to teach in their estates and villages. This was an attempt to get all students covered.
Technology is good and goes a long way in helping the world cope with the pandemic. However, the possible negative and unintended consequences must be put into consideration for a better experience.