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Fast tech to silence dissent, slow tech for public health crisis [excerpt]

Photo by Vino Lucero

As the COVID-19 pandemic quickly changed the way we went about our lives and work, many of us looked to our respective governments for information on the coronavirus and guidance on how to flatten the curve and decrease local transmissions. Some governments, through the help of technologies like artificial intelligence, managed to quickly implement data-backed policies and guidelines to mitigate the spread of the virus. But others tried to instead downplay the pandemic instead of addressing it head-on.

Technology-based solutions were used – and continue to be used – by governments to control and manage the situation in their countries. But if the continuing coronavirus “infodemic” is any indicator, not all governments have been successful in devising ways to spread verified government information backed by science and tech. This is especially important to note in light of last week’s International Day for Universal Access to Information, which focused on “the right to information in times of crisis … to save lives, build trust and help the formulation of sustainable policies through and beyond the COVID-19 crisis”.

Early this year, I was invited to contribute to the book “Data Justice and COVID-19: Global Perspectives”, which narrates how the pandemic “has reshaped how social, economic, and political power is created, exerted, and extended through technology”. The book can be purchased via the Meatspace Press website or downloaded for free as a PDF.

My contribution to the book, titled “Fast tech to silence dissent, slow tech for public health crisis”, highlights how only well-connected technology companies were given the opportunity to work with the government on tech-driven solutions to COVID-19, while the majority of independent and genuinely-willing tech experts were excluded from the efforts. I also point out data privacy issues raised against one of the key applications developed for COVID-19 response in the Philippines, as well as how the Philippine government seemingly had different priorities in mind despite the pandemic. These other priorities included passing a law that stifles freedom of expression and shutting down a major news organisation, sending out summons to citizens expressing criticism or dissent against government officials online, campaigning to change the current democratic form of government, and moving towards more opaqueness in government processes and transactions.

“With all these recent developments considered, it is apparent that technology is not being used well to tackle the spread of COVID-19 in the Philippines. Instead, it is being used to fight freedom of expression, press freedom, and justice. All while government coffers are being emptied to supposedly respond to the pandemic—with the executive having nothing concrete to show for it thus far.”

Data Justice and COVID-19 features dispatches from academics, civil society experts, and journalists from 33 countries around the world, offering diverse perspectives as to how governments are tackling the pandemic and the technology sector’s role in response efforts. The volume also features nine commentaries that offer a deeper analysis of common themes raised in the dispatches.

Other dispatches from the Asia-Pacific countries are:

  • Australia: “Counting, countering and claiming the pandemic: digital practices, players, policies” by Fleur Johns
  • China: “Digital collectivism in a global state of emergency” by Wayne W. Wang (pseudonym)
  • Japan: “High and low tech responses” by David Murakami Wood
  • Singapore: “A whole-of-government approach to the pandemic” by Julienne Chen and Ate Poorthuis
  • South Korea: “Fighting disease with apps: reshaping relationships between government and citizens” by (Sarah) Hye Jung Kim and (Melissa) Hye Shun Yoon

Similar to the Philippine dispatch, these essays from our region highlight the major government-backed applications and platforms being used as part of the COVID-19 response, their respective governments’ approaches to the pandemic and mitigating risks for citizens, public participation in controlling the pandemic, and other topics relating to how citizen engagement is crucial in all COVID-19 tech efforts.

Interested readers can purchase their own paperback copy of the book or donate for the PDF version of the book through the Meatspace Press shop. However, you can also read the full book via Issuu or download a copy via Internet Archive. Links for these are available on the Meatspace Press website.

Check out their website as well for more information on the Global Data Justice project.


Vino Lucero is a Project and Communications Officer at EngageMedia. He is a journalist based in Manila. He is also the Chief Global Executive Director of International Youth United, a youth organisation aiming to improve youth participation in issues related to freedom of information, digital rights, peace, justice, and human rights.

2 thoughts on “Fast tech to silence dissent, slow tech for public health crisis [excerpt]”

  1. Ivy D. Bonador

    The closure of a media giant and pandemic had resulted to a domino effect.

  2. Ivy D. Bonador

    We would like to hear more from the perspectives if media personalities hard-hit by data injustice and the pandemic.

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