THE Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted several gaps in Pakistan’s digital economy and technology policy landscape, the most important of which are enabling digital access, curbing fake news, supporting ‘gig’ workers and implementing robust data policies.
As social distancing through lockdowns is thought to be the most effective way of battling Covid-19, technology is now a means of continuing our lives. Those who lack the digital access and skills to continue their education or earn an income from home are highly vulnerable to the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic.
Lack of digital access and skills also excludes people from the digital financial system, making it riskier for governments and charities to disburse social security payments and donations to those in need as in-person transactions may further spread the virus. While the State Bank has taken positive steps towards promoting digital transactions, we must keep in mind that in Pakistan these alternatives are luxuries afforded to the privileged few. Most are excluded from these systems and, as a result, are more likely to suffer health and economic shocks.
For those who do have digital access, a key concern is to combat fake news. Pakistan has long been a victim of fake news as more and more people are using social media and mass messaging apps. In the case of Covid-19, this misinformation may put individual lives as well as the entire healthcare system at risk. At best, these stories spread misinformation around the origin of Covid-19. At worst, they enable its proliferation by spreading misinformation on how it is caught, transmitted and cured.
Those who lack digital access are highly vulnerable in this crisis.
The government must be commended for the efforts already made against fake news: working with mobile network operators to replace dial tones with informational recordings, sending mass SMS alerts with information, and attempting to partner with social media influencers to spread correct guidance on the virus. Big tech companies too have taken steps, with Twitter, for example, ensuring coronavirus searches lead users to verified sources.
In Pakistan, WhatsApp is likely the platform most responsible for spreading misinformation, but since it is a private messaging app with end-to-end encryption, it is more difficult to contain fake news on it while preserving user privacy. Educating users on how to identify fake news, how to verify news sources, and the potential damage they may cause by spreading fake news is crucial.
The pandemic has also highlighted the vulnerability of the new tech-based category of ‘gig’ workers. They face similar issues as traditional freelance workers such as, job insecurity, inconsistent wages, and lack of benefits. As the government is considering the ‘gig’ economy as a solution to Pakistan’s employment problem, this crisis has brought to light the importance of being able to use digital platforms to earn an income as well as the potential risks that come with this category of employment.
The gig economy business model is designed to protect employers in crisis situations by removing their obligation to pay workers a consistent salary and provide benefits. If a large portion of the workforce is employed in this way, how do you help them when a crisis such as a pandemic comes about?
Finally, given the lack of information on the novel coronavirus and the lack of disaster preparedness, aggressive data collection strategies are being implemented. The need to ‘flatten the curve’ and prepare for what is to come requires data. Data can help to predict the progress of the virus and its health and economic effects, and to design an effective, evidence-based response. These data collection strategies include tracking people’s locations, movements and social activities through their smartphones.
If mobile phone surveillance will help to slow down the spread of the virus then it must be done. But it is imperative that the government is transparent about which agencies are collecting what data and why that data is required. The data collected must be tied to public health goals and steps must be taken to ensure that it is not used for other purposes.
Moreover, we must question if the data collection infrastructure being built to respond to the pandemic will be dismantled once the threat has been dealt with. Where Covid-19 is being used to justify the strengthening of the surveillance apparatus, we must ensure that this surveillance apparatus will not be a permanent fixture, aiding other agencies to achieve other goals.
While these questions may take a back seat to the more urgent need of responding to a very serious health crisis, they must be kept in mind and must serve as a reminder of the need to expand the digital economy while proactively mitigating the risks that come with it.
The writer is a development and technology policy consultant.
Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2020