Disease Surveillance, Digital Futures, and Data-Sharing in a World ‘After’ COVID-19

By Stephen Roberts and Patty Kostkova - 10 November 2021
Disease Surveillance, Digital Futures, and Data-Sharing in a World ‘After’ COVID-19

Over one and a half years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Big Tech and big-data driven technologies including digital vaccine passports and return to work apps aimed at unlocking and restarting vaccinated societies are on the ascent in a ‘return to normal’ for COVID-safe societies. In drawing from critical and ongoing legacies of ‘Big Tech’ (including multinational IT, social media and mobile telecommunication corporations) experimentations during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic which failed as key components in national and global pandemic responses, the aim of this article is to provide a critical analysis of new digital interventions aimed at monitoring population health and the re-opening of societies in a world ‘after COVID-19’. Amid calls to unlock and restart societies through these intensifying digital mediums, we discuss the opportunities, limitations, and concerns of these transformations in disease surveillance and pandemic response via a number of critical avenues: the digitisation of global actors; implications for the normalisation of ubiquitous surveillance; and equity in global health. Subsequently, in highlighting the alarming potential of these technologies to distract from traditional public health responses, and to undermine practices of social justice and equity in global health, we provide key policy recommendations to moderate and regulate the rollout of these digital interventions within the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and in future public health emergencies.

Policy Recommendations

  • There is an urgent need for novel international governance and regulatory frameworks around access to healthcare services, and health data to protect citizens from corporate and commercial interests, especially during public health emergencies.
  • More resources and powers must be given to WHO and stronger international cooperation must follow in the development of equitable practices of vaccine certification, standards setting in sharing of medical and health data, and in ensuring best practices which enable safe, and non-discriminatory mobility for all vaccinated individuals and communities globally.
  • Without robust resources dedicated to resolving global vaccine inequities, digital interventions including digital vaccine passports and return to work apps to unlock societies as COVID-safe will do little to address a worsening pandemic.
  • Social scientists, including anthropologists, critical race, gender, legal, and security scholars, behaviour scientists and sociologists to name a few, must continue to be at the centre of ongoing and future assessments and evaluations of these evolving technologies.
  • Future public health emergencies can only be addressed through sustained, equitable and cross-societal investments in public health and pandemic preparedness.