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Access to real-time, mobile data is proving valuable in tracking close contacts of coronavirus-infected persons and thereby helping to contain the spread of the pandemic. In China, although the Covid-19 outbreak has posed challenges to the daily operations of telecommunications, it has also accelerated the demand for digitisation. “Clearly, further digitalisation of services will require substantial investments in infrastructure. That comes as the EU has had to limit the streaming of high-definition video over mobile data networks to ensure they remain accessible by all subscribers” says Lee. Telehealth – the distribution of health-related services and information via technology – has also proved to be effective, with chatbots13 providing initial diagnoses based on symptoms identified by patients.
However, in countries where medical costs are high, it's important to ensure telehealth will be covered by insurance, assert Xiao and Fan. Telehealth also requires a certain level of tech literacy to operate, as well as a good internet connection. And as medical services are one of the most heavily regulated businesses, doctors typically can only provide medical care to patients who live in the same jurisdiction.
New technologies giving access to massive data sets are likely to play a part in the reopening of economies or the management of social distancing policies in a persistent pandemic scenario. Citing various country measures, Lee notes China, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have used geolocation, travel and financial data, among others, to track close contacts of infected people in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. China went further by using users’ past and current medical conditions to develop a Health QR Code which, depending on the score, either allows access to activities such a shops and public transportation stations, or orders people to self-quarantine.
Of course, privacy concerns may constrain the acceptance of these new technological applications. “About half of households we surveyed are unprepared to accept constant monitoring of their health by the authorities for the indefinite future,” notes Lee. Reflecting these concerns, Apple and Google have partnered on Covid-19 contact tracing technology, with user security central to their design. More initiatives are needed to address these concerns.