Meaningful employment of digital technologies towards effective COVID-19 prevention from Taiwan’s perspective

Written by Chih-Wei Chen.

Image credit: Healthcare worker announcing new Digital health passport by Marco Verch Professional Photographer/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

As we know, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the deficiencies of current systems in human society. As an echo of the 74th World Health Assembly, people, governments and organisations must reflect on current systems and devote themselves to shaping more robust systems. Digital technologies provided new possibilities to address the issue. However, digital technologies bring not only opportunities but also challenges and risks. Hence, how to meaningfully employ digital technologies becomes necessary for pandemic prevention and is the key to further implement UN SDGs. Taiwan’s experience in COVID-19 prevention has provided some insights into the meaningful employment of digital technologies meanwhile addressing the challenges.

Drawing on the risk assessment of the global pandemic situation by the World Health Organisation, the pandemic generally evolves rapidly through three main phases: the alert phase, the pandemic phase, and the transition phase. Therefore, governments and society need to take actions to prevent the outbreak, contain the spread, and relieve constraints by establishing immune protections.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, many countries were challenged by the insufficient face-mask supply and public panics. Taiwan also faced such a difficult situation, not to mention its proximity to China, where the outbreak was first reported. Therefore, the Taiwan government promptly organised the National Face-mask Production Team to improve the supply to address the challenge. Soon after the sharp increase of face mask production capacity, the government further developed the Face-mask distribution system by integrating the National Health Insurance (NHI) database with the production information obtained from the National Face-mask Production Team, as well as employing spatial information technologies and other digital tools. The government also provided open data to society. It encouraged the creative industry to develop other GIS-based face-mask information systems, which were then collated in the face mask supply and demand information platform provided by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The efforts allowed people to know where and when they could purchase face masks conveniently and are further transformed into decision support tools. As a result, the National Face-mask Production Team and the Face-mask distribution system become the warm energy to reduce public panics and stabilise society, allowing smooth implementation of other pandemic prevention measures.

Data flow in the Face-mask distribution system (dotted line: data flow).

In May 2021, the variants of COVID-19 broke into Taiwan and caused the first severe outbreak in communities. As a result, level 3 restrictions were imposed, and a series of pandemic prevention measures were taken, which significantly affected people’s daily life. Thus, confronted with this new challenge, the Taiwan government utilised data science. Further, it developed the QR code registration system to track the people who tested positive and their close contacts for isolation and treatment, as well as the locations they visited for disinfection. Using the system, conventional phone users could directly send the text with the location code to the telecommunication companies. At the same time, people with smartphones could simply scan the QR code, which generates the location code, and then send out the text. Either approach requires no contact and, therefore, could effectively reduce contact-induced infections.

Meanwhile, unlike the tracking systems in many other countries, the QR code registration system does not require any additional APP to be downloaded. It is very user-friendly for people with either conventional phones or smartphones, contributing to narrowing the digital divide. Furthermore, to address the public concerns on data privacy, the system is designed to allow telecommunication companies to store the collected data for 28 days (two incubation periods) and then delete the data. Hence, the data could only be used for pandemic prevention. The employment of digital technologies accompanied by comprehensive planning and flexible strategy allowed the society to trust the government and be willing to use the system. The joint efforts of the government and society facilitated the implementation of pandemic prevention measures, and therefore Taiwan could efficiently contain the spread of the virus in approximately two months.

Data flow in the QR code registration system (dotted line: data flow).

In recent days, the Taiwan government further developed the vaccine registration system, with the expectation to improve vaccination coverage towards shaping immune protection in communities. The system was designed to allow people to register and get the vaccine in a specific order, which considers the regional demands, age groups, working types, and the vulnerability of people. Meanwhile, the system also allowed people to choose their preferred location, time, and vaccine type. These designs of the system made it a human-centred and efficient tool for vaccine registration. The efforts contributed to the goal of building comprehensive immune protection in communities towards achieving universal health coverage, which echoed the spirit of UN SDG 3 – Health for ALL.

Data flow in the vaccine registration system (dotted line: data flow, solid line: function of the system).

While confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan has actively endeavoured during three phases to prevent the outbreak, contain the spread, and build the immune protections by developing the Face-mask distribution system, QR code registration system, and vaccine registration system, respectively. Overall, the meaningful employment of digital technologies accompanied by comprehensive planning and flexible strategies are the key to pandemic prevention in Taiwan.

As a matter of fact, the pandemic that has swept the whole world will eventually subside. However, the digital technology waves are coming continuously. Taiwan’s experience in pandemic prevention through digital technologies echoes the latest global trend of exploring how to employ digital technologies to implement UN SDGs. This facilitates people to address the risks, challenges, and other uncontrolled situations and forms new insights and reflects on things in life, which is provided for people to explore the possible roadmap towards digital sustainability.

Chih-Wei Chen FRGS is the Life Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in the UK. Currently, he serves as a member of the National Council for Sustainable Development (NCSD) of Taiwan Govt.; and he also works as the Visiting Professor of University College London (UCL) in the UK and the Visiting Scholar of National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Japan.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Covid-19 Spike.

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