Infodemic amidst pandemic

Updated 29 Jun 2020

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An infodemic is hardly the way to go about managing the pandemic. — Reuters/File
An infodemic is hardly the way to go about managing the pandemic. — Reuters/File

THE accelerating number of Covid-19 cases has turned the world upside down. From knowing a guy who knows someone with the virus to it penetrating our close friends and family circle, the situation has become eerily similar to an apocalyptic movie.

The government has tried to take a proactive role when it comes to providing details about the number of cases, deaths and geographical breakdowns. It also quickly set up covid.gov.pk and built an app towards the same end. But that hasn’t stopped some well-meaning Samaritans to play their part as well. In this piece, I will try to shed light on some of those efforts.

Let’s start with Covid-19 Health Resource Map by Jaya Rajwani, a Karachi-based computer engineer leading the tech team for a local startup. It’s basically an information portal that gives you details on testing centres, isolation facilities, tertiary hospitals and pharmacies across the country.

As the name suggests, the link directs to a map where you can choose your point of interest and get a geographical attribute of that. For example, if you select testing facilities, it will show you its name, address, per-day capacity and activity status. Similarly, for hospitals, there are details on the number of beds with plans to add ventilators.

“I have a tech background and wanted to put my skills to the benefit of the country. At the time, a lot of people were trying to create dashboards and make predictions, which honestly is too ambitious based on the available data,” she tells Dawn.

Well-meaning citizens need to be lauded, but there is no denying that the crowdsourcing of information in the biggest health crisis of the century is a risky bet

“Back in the university, I had developed a geo-tagging model and used that for Covid-19–related data, which comes from sources like the National Institute of Health, provincial ministries, official Twitter accounts plus a small network of volunteers,” she explains.

Similarly, there is covidpk.net, another citizen-led attempt that lets you ask a doctor questions and has other useful information. “When members of my own family contracted the virus, I personally went through the troubles of looking for supplies and all. That led us to the idea of there being a dedicated database, instead of having to search on Facebook or sift through WhatsApp messages whenever there is need for, say, a plasma donor,” says freelance journalist Sana Batool, who is part of the website’s team.

In addition to offering basic content on how to prevent and try curing the disease, it has a directory of organisations or individuals that can provide key supplies — from drugs to oxygen cylinders — as well as a list of a few plasma donors.

But with crowd-sourced data, there are obviously concerns regarding its authenticity. “We try our best to verify each entry — for example, the plasma donors — but obviously I can’t guarantee if the listed people would be responsive, say, one week from now,” says Ms Batool.

Falling again under the same information provision category, two self-taught kids have also made an online game that helps create awareness about the virus, ways to protect and so on.

Finally, Cheetay.pk from Lahore has tried its hand at building a contact tracing app by the name of CoCare and even partnered up with the Punjab Information Technology Board. However, that technology the world over has come under fire owing to privacy concerns even when run by the government. The concerns probably multiply when it comes to the private sector, especially considering we don’t even have proper rules yet governing the use of such personal data.

A cursory look (given a lack of central repository) at the recent innovations suggests that most of the work is being done within the ambit of information provision and not a great deal related to major scientific breakthroughs. And whatever little is done is basic stuff like manufacturing of PPEs or making sanitizers in bulk, except for a handful of attempts at ventilators, which are still in the process of obtaining approvals from the regulator.

However, the range of innovation does go beyond the areas mentioned above. For example, Smartchoice.pk — an online financial aggregator — has made exclusive partnerships with TPL and EFU Life to offer a new product specifically covering Covid-19–related expenses, such as isolation centre costs, test reimbursement and death benefit.

As much as these efforts by well-meaning citizens need to be lauded, there is no denying that the decentralisation and crowdsourcing of information when it comes to the biggest health crisis of the century is a very risky bet. With fake news already flooded all over the internet, how good of an idea is it to have even more players enter? After all, an infodemic is hardly the way to go about managing the pandemic.

On the other hand, it’s not difficult to make the case that the state has both limited capacity and competence. It’s definitely not the first time we are seeing (especially in Karachi) individuals stepping up to fill in the vacuum created by the many administrations.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 29th, 2020