RIA Senior Fellow Gabriella Razzano writes about digital hegemonies and COVID-19 in Essay #2 in the Data and Pandemic Politics series on data justice and COVID-19. This essay was first published at globaldatajustice.org
South Africa has had over 700,000 reported COVID-19 cases, in spite of a brisk and strict lockdown response. The first case of COVID-19 was reported on 5 March 2020 (which also marks the start date for contact tracing authority), and on 15 March 2020 a National State of Disaster was declared. South Africa’s COVID-19 response is worth critically examining, particularly given our huge inequality challenges; but perhaps underappreciated is the ‘history’, short-lived as it is, of the government’s approach to contract tracing. The government’s response to the coronavirus has been to prioritise expansive powers, in spite of its own inability to use these powers effectively. And deference to big tech can be seen as a strong signifier of future patterns in the power hegemonies of public-private collaborations in the future digital economy.
Until a vaccine for the coronavirus is widely available, the only “available infection prevention approaches are case isolation, contact tracing and quarantine, physical distancing, decontamination, and hygiene measures.” State responses have had to centre contact tracing as a necessary public health response. And from very early on, both contact tracing – and extensions into surveillance meant to gain greater visibility into the spread of COVID-19 – have alerted activists and the public to the balance between public health and privacy protection. Yet approaches to contact tracing vary significantly, with countries like Vietnam and the Indian state of Kerala using largely manual approaches to good effect, or Singapore launching a voluntary, centralised data application early but to ill effect, or countries like South Korea implementing a broad range of technology-centred contact tracing and surveillance to strong effect.