Category Archives: digital technologies

The advantages of being unconnected to the Internet: a thought experiment

The 2021 ITU Facts and Figures report highlighted that 2.9 billion people, or 37% of the world’s population, have still never used the Internet. Implict in this, as in almost all UN initiatives relating to digital technology, is the ideal that everyone should be connected to the Internet. Hence, many global initiatives continue to be designed to create multi-stakeholder (or as I prefer, multi-sector – see my Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development) partnerships to provide connectivity to everyone in the world. But, whose interests does this really serve? Would the unconnected really be better off if they were connected?

Walking in the Swiss mountains last month, and staying in a place where mobile phones and laptops were prohibited, reminded me of the human importance of being embedded in nature – and that of course we don’t really need always to be digitally connected.

Although I have addressed these issues in many of my publications over the last 20 years, I have never articulated in detail the reasons why people might actually be better off remaining unconnected: hence this thought experiment. There are actually many sound reasons why people should consider remaining unconnected, and for those of us who spend our lives overly connected we should think about disconnecting ourselves as much as possible. These are but a few of these reasons:

  • Above all, we were born to be a part of the physical world in which we live. Virtual realities may approximate (or even in some senses enhance) that physical world, but they are fundamentally different. Those who spend all of their time connected miss out on all the joys of living in nature; those who are unconnected have the privilege of experiencing the full richness of that nature.
  • Those who are unconnected do not have to waste time sifting through countless boring e-mails or group chats to find what is worthwhile, or the messages in which they are really interested.
  • The unconnected cannot give away for free their valuable data from which global digital corporations make their fortunes.
  • Being unconnected means not harming the physical environment through the heavy demands digital technologies place on our precious natural world (see the work of the Digital-Environment System Coalition – DESC)
  • Those who are unconnected do not suffer the horrors of online harassment or digital violence.
  • The unconnected are not forced by their managers to self-exploit by doing online training once they are home after a day’s work, or answer e-mails/chat messages sent by their managers at all hours of the day and night.
  • Those who are not online don’t have to run the risk of online scams or phishing attacks that steal their savings – and the poor suffer most when, for example, their small amounts of money are stolen.
  • The unconnected can largely escape much of the digital surveillance now promulgated by governments in the name of “security” and “anti-terrorist” action.
  • The unconnected do not suffer from digital addictions to online games, gambling, or pornography.
  • Ultimately, being connected is akin to being enslaved by the world’s digital barons and their corporations; if you cannot stop using digital tech for a few days, let alone a week, surely you have lost your freedom?

Despite the fine sounding words of those leading global connectivity initiatives, is it really the poorest and most marginalised who are going to benefit most from being connected? Surely, this agenda of global connectivity is being driven mainly in the interests of the global corporations that will be paid to roll out the tech infrastructre, or that will benefit from exploiting the data that we all too willingly give them for nothing? Does not, for example, digital financial inclusion benefit the financial and tech companies and institutions far more than it does the poorest and most marginalised? This is not to deny that digital tech does indeed have many positive uses, but it is to ask fundamental questions about who benefits most.

I remember visiting a village in Africa with colleagues who couldn’t understand why the inhabitants didn’t want mobile phones. Walking over the hills to see their friends was more important to them than the ease of calling them up. This post owes much to that conversation.

We all need to ask the crucial questions about whose interests our often well-intentioned global digital connectivity initiatives really serve. If we wish to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised, we must become their servants and not the servants of the world’s rich and powerful; we must be humble, and learn from those we wish to serve.

And the world’s rich and privileged also need to take care of ourselves; if we have difficulty living a day without being connected, surely we have indeed become enslaved? We need to regain our freedom as fully sentient beings, using all of our senses to comprehend and care for the natural world in which we live. May I conclude by encouraging people to think about using the hashtag #1in7offline. Take one day a week away from digital tech to experience the wonders of our world, unmediated by the paltry digital alternative. Or try taking a week away from the digital world every seven weeks. If you cannot do this, ask yourself why!

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Filed under Africa, digital technologies, Empowerment, ICT4D, United Nations

“We’ve seen it all before”: sketches about why so many digital tech for development initiatives fail

Clearing out boxes of old books and reports recently, I was struck by how many ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development) initiatives there have been over the last 20 years, many of which have simply repeated the mistakes of their predecessors. Most have failed to make real and significant improvements in the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people. Quick looks at Weigel and Waldburger’s (2004) seminal book, and the ICT4 all Exhibition catalogue for the 2005 WSIS Summit in Tunis, remind us that most of the problems we are addressing in 2021 are broadly similar to those that were being addressed 20 years ago: how to enable the most marginalised to benefit from digital tech; moving from rhetoric to action; how to deliver effective partnerships; the importance of local languages; financing challenges; or how to ensure access…

An invitation to give a lecture at the Aga Khan University in Pakistan as part of a Master’s course on Learning and Teaching with Technology later this week provided me with the opportunity to reflect at some length on this thorny issue, and to come up with some suggestions as to why we continue to reinvent the wheel, and what we need to change if we really want to work with the poorest and most marginalised in delivering effective ICT4D initiatives that will help to empower them.

It also reminded me that even when I first started teaching in universities in the mid-1970s I used multimedia technologies such as slides (diapositives), aerial photos, film clips, overhead transparencies – as well as books. There is very little fundamentally new in the use of ICTs in education; it’s just the detail of the tech that has changed. As long ago as the early 1990s I thus enjoyed delivering lectures to students across London through the University Live-Net TV network, and in the middle of that decade enjoyed participated in the work of the Computers in Teaching Initiative in the UK. Hopefully we had learnt by then many of the challenges and success factors that previous colleagues involved in delivering education at a distance had shared with us.

Why are we failing so badly to learn the lessons of the past?

Reflecting on this simple question, I came up with six main suggestions as to why valuable lessons from previous ICT initiatives, especially in the education sector, do not seem to have been sufficiently learnt:

  • Lack of background research
  • Increased emphasis on innovation
  • The problem with “self”
  • Short-termism
  • Commercialisation and marketisation of education
  • Insufficient intergenerational dialogue

I am sure there are many more, and I look forward to exploring these ideas further with interested colleagues. Each needs to be fleshed out in much more detail, but the following brief notes cover some of the aspects that may be of particular importance.

Lack of background research

  • The Google (or DuckDuckGo) first page syndrome
    • only following up links on the first page (or two)
    • only reading the most recently published material
  • Too many people failing to explore and learn from what has been done before
  • Too much of a hurry?
  • Believing only the latest is best?
  • Nothing old is worthwhile?
  • A strong sense of self-belief, and that there is no need to read (see further below)
  • Past research and practice are inaccessible or unavailable
    • but this isn’t really true – many of us have written at length about our previous experiences

Problems with innovation

  • It is well known that most innovations fail
  • Overcoming failure often seen as being essential for subsequent success
    • But surely it’s best not to make the well known mistakes that others have made before?
  • So why is innovation (scientific and business) usually seen as being such a good thing?
  • Many governments (and donors) are increasingly focusing on funding innovation to drive economic growth – should they use taxpayers’ money to fund failure?
  • Might it not be wiser for donors and governments to spread what we know works, say for 60% of the population, to everyone?
    • Reducing inequalities rather than maximising growth

The problem with “self”

  • Self(ish) individualism
  • The need to be first
  • Overconfidence in own excellence
  • Having great qualifications so must know the truth
    • But perhaps the qualifications are not so great after all!
  • Unwilling to be self-critical
  • Brought up within the power and culture of non-self-critical scientism
  • A self-congratulatory culture (illustrated by awards processes)
  • Competitive rather than communal culture
  • Enjoys making mistakes in the belief that they will learn
    • Very expensive for others, especially in the international development context

Short-termism

  • Short-term job delivery and then move on
    • It’s always good to be seen to be bringing in new ideas
    • You don’t have to pick up the bits because you’ve left by then
  • The world of 140 characters
  • Project cycles often very short
  • It’s important to show success even when you’ve done nothing
  • Those who shout loudest tend to get heard
    • Even when there is little substance behind the claims
  • Short term is much easier than doing something long term
  • Perhaps “Agile” also has something to do with this?

The commercialisation and marketisation of education

  • EdTech is about the technology not the education
  • Everything is about expanding the market
  • Sales driven, with short term targets
  • Pitching to donors
    • A different skill set to delivery
  • Donors have large budgets and also have to show quick gains
  • Unrealistic target setting
  • Pilots where it is easiest
    • Instead they should be done where it is most difficult
  • We are measuring different success factors
    • Connecting a million children
    • But are they the most marginalised, and do they learn anything?

Insufficient intergenerational dialogue

  • “Youth have all the answers”
    • Older people have wrecked the world and so should now listen to young people who have all the good ideas
    • Much political posturing
  • The old have no idea how to use digital tech
    • Really?
  • Little priority given to mentoring
    • Especially 360o
  • Even fewer initiatives specifically designed to be inter-generational
    • Youth political institutions often replicate existing flawed global institutions
    • Especially within the UN system

Moving beyond a sketch

I have frequently been frustrated when I hear exciting new ideas being advocated about ways through which the latest generation of technologies (be it AI, AR, blockchain, or the Metaverse) can transform global education for the better. More often than not, the technology is the easy bit. It’s everything else that’s difficult. As a contribution at least to what governments need to get right, we collectively crafted a report on Education for the most marginalised post-COVID-19: Guidance for governmetns on the use of digital technologies in education (freely available under a CC BY licence at https://ict4d.org.uk/technology-and-education-post-covid-19, and https://edtechhub.org/education-for-the-most-marginalised-post-covid-19) which I hope goes some way to sharing global good practices at least in this area. Perhaps we should do similar reports for the private sector and for civil society, although those in these sectors could still learn much from our report for governments.

The above six sets of suggestions are just a beginning, but I wanted to share them here to provoke discussion. Everyone will have their own list of suggestions. What’s missing from the above? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who might like to explore this theme further! I need to learn more! At the very least, I hope that future colleagues will address these suggestions head on and thereby no longer repeat the same mistakes that so many of us have made in the past.

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Filed under digital technologies, Education, ICT4D

Digital for Life?

View of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau from small tarn above Grosse Scheidegg

It was a privilege to have been invited to contribute to the panel on Digital for Life? at the Club of Rome’s annual conference today along with luminaries such as Carlos Álvarez Pereira, Ndidi Nnoli-Edozien, Anders Wijkman, Charly Kleissner, Mariana Bozesan and Bolaji Akinboro. I fear, though, that my perspective was a little different from that of many of the panelists who were from a business, financial and entrepreneurial background. It was also challenging to convey the nuances of what I had intended to say in my opening 4 minutes!

So, for anyone who might be interested, I’m posting my speaking notes here. At least, this is more or less what I had intended to say!


Digital for Life?

I think of two things when presented with this question:

  • First, that many of those developing digital technologies and indeed in the biotech sector more widely are working hard to extend human life through digital tech.  The work of Calico (subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company) and Elon Musk’s creation of Neuralink are just two examples (claiming that “that people would need to become cyborgs to be relevant in an artificial intelligence age. He said that a “merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence” would be necessary to ensure we stay economically valuable”, Guardian, 2017).   More widely, the increasing blending of human and digital makes me think that within a relatively short period of time, perhaps already, it will not be possible for “pure humans” to survive, in a world increasingly dominated by cyborgs. For many this does not matter; for others (including me) it does. We need to think such thoughts so that we can debate them openly, thereby enabling people to reach wise judgements as to the kinds of future “we” wish to create.  This in turn of course depends on who “we” are, and here I would err on the side of relativism and diversity.  I find one single universal “we” frightening; just as I do the idea of universal individual human rights, without the balancing necessary responsibilities to ensure that diverse individuals can live side-by-side (see Unwin, 2014).
  • The second idea I would like to share is that digital technologies are becoming increasingly harmful to life (of all kinds) on planet earth.  We need to understand the negatives of technology on nature/earth/the physical environment, as well as the positive potential of its use. This is obviously important in the context of the upcoming COP26 jamboree.  Although much effort has been expended on trying to show how digital tech is squeeky-green-clean and can contribute much to a reduction in CO2 and thus “save the planet from climate change”, the truth is much dirtier.  Increasing research shows just how anti-sustainable many digital techs are: fast fashion business models (smart-phone life/owned span around a couple of years); companies preventing right to repair; environmentally harmful mining of rare-earth minerals; bitcoin using more energy than Argentina or the Netherlands; satellite pollution of outer space (akin to the way we used to treat the oceans); digital tech creating twice as much carbon emissions as the airline industry; and energy demand spiralling upwards as 5G, AI, smart cities and a world of sensors come to dominate our lives.  The Digital-Environment System Coalition (DESC) that I founded earlier this year, and to which anyone is most welcome to join, is committed to rethinking the relationships between digital tech and the life of nature, focusing on both the benefits and the harms that it can be used to create.

Page one of the participants

We had a fascinating, albeit attenuated, discussion and I look forward to continuing the exploration. I have much to learn from what others think and say. These are critically important issues if we wish to leave a better world to the next generation, and not have it transformed irrevocably by the scientism of those creating ever more enslaving and destructive digital technologies.

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Filed under DESC, digital technologies, Environment, ICT4D

Safeguarding and digital technologies in research activities

The following is the text of a recent piece (revised version 2) that I wrote for a research project in which I am involved, but which may well have wider relevance. There is much more that could be written on this topic, but I hope it provides helpful guidance on some of the more important issues that need to be addressed by researchers with respect to safeguarding and the use of digital technologies, especially following the rapid expansion of their use since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Context

The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on the lives of most people, with social interactions becoming mediated much more through digital technologies than was heretofore the case.  Digital technologies are usually promoted as always having positive impacts, or at worst being benign.  This, though, is an unrealistic picture, and their ability to accelerate and accentuate negative as well as positive behaviours and experiences gives rise to significant safeguarding concerns. While the term safeguarding is traditionally used to refer only to children and vulnerable adults, it is now used much more widely and in a sense everyone without good knowledge of how to use digital tech safely is subject to potential harm from its use. The relevant safeguarding issues can broadly be divided into those relating to the self, those relating to others, and those impacting the environment.

Taking care of oneself

Many people have experienced a considerable increase in the time they spend using digital technologies as a result of COVID-19, not all of which is healthy or indeed safe.  Those responsible for safeguarding should always check that their staff enjoy the use of digital technologies safely, securely and wisely.

  • Time out.  Try to spend at least one day a week without use of any digital devices or connectivity; learn again the joys of the physical world, and the beauties of nature.
  • Digital duration. How long do you spend using digital technologies each day?  This can be very harmful both to the body and to the mind.  Think about installing a screen-time checker that will let you know!  Ensure your working environment (desk, screens, chairs) is appropriate for your body.  Give your eyes some time to relax and explore distant horizons.  Get up and take a short walk at least every hour.
  • Office hours.  Digital tech is frequently used to extend work time, and this has been exacerbated during COVID-19 lockdowns.  Set yourself appropriate office hours, and don’t respond to e-mails out of these. Submit a formal complaint if your boss insists you respond to e-mails all hours of the day and night.  When working across time zones always ask for arrangements to be made that can include you at appropriate times.  Don’t self-exploit (unless you really want to).
  • Privacy.  The more time you spend on digital technologies, the more information you give to others about yourself.  You might be happy to be merely a data point, but if not don’t just automatically click on accept when asked about permissions or cookies.  Think about using software that limits how much others can find out about you.  Use search engines that offer privacy such as DuckDuckGo.
  • Security. Always install relevant protection (antivirus, web, ransomware, privacy, malicious traffic) and use it (techradar Guide).  Create complex passwords.  Be aware of scams, spam and phishing attacks, and keep safe by never simply clicking on links without checking that they are safe – especially if they are from people not know to you.
  • Online conferences and meetings.  Be very careful in online calls, especially if you cannot see everyone.  In face-to-face meetings it is possible to pick up signs of how people react to what you are saying and thus adjust in real time, but this is impossible with most video calls.  It is thus easy to cause offence without meaning to.  Don’t waste your time attending the thousands of online conferences or meetings that you are invited to – most are a complete waste of time.  Only join ones that are critical to what you are doing, or are of real interest.  Think of limiting your time to c. 8 hours of online meetings a week, and spend the rest doing things that are productive and worthwhile!
  • Use social media carefully.  Social media can be great for connecting with people that you want to, but it can also be deeply hurtful and the cause of much violence.  Be careful over what you write, and avoid using it if you are angry or tired.  If you are trolled, never reply because it only exacerbates the attacks.  Don’t just accept anyone as an online friend unless you know who they are.  Take time away from social media.  Read guides on wise use of social media (such as that produced by Greater Good at Berkeley).  Report any abuse or harassment to the appropriate authorities (see how to respond to digital violence).
  • Never use personally identifiable media for professional purposes.  In particular, do not use your own digital media for research purposes.  Instead, always ask to use official e-mails, telephone numbers and media outlets.  For example, never use your personal mobile number to join a group on apps such as WhatsApp, especially for conducting interviews or focus groups, because you can never be sure who else is in the group, and what they might subsequently contact you about.
  • Behave wisely.  Remember that it is almost certain that some-one/thing, somewhere is almost certainly tracking and recording in some way everything you do online.  Do not be the one who causes harm to others online.

Do to others as you would have them do to you – but remember they are different from you

In many ways, safeguarding advice relating to others is the application of the above principles to everyone else, but especially to members of the team of which you are a part, and all those with whom you are researching.  It is crucially important to remember, though, that what is deemed to be acceptable use to some may not be acceptable to others.  There is as yet little global agreement on what is acceptable behaviour in using digital technologies.

Within a team

General advice that is often seen as being helpful for avoiding digital harm includes:

  • Always listen more than you speak in digital meetings – and do listen, rather than doing all the other digital things you need to catch up on;
  • Never impose one particular technology on everyone in the team – try to reach consensus but if someone will not use one particular app or device, find an alternative solution;
  • Never expect an immediate response to an e-mail, or on social media – if you wish to send e-mails at four in the morning your time do not expect others in your time-zone to respond;
  • Dramatically reduce the number of online meetings that you think should be held, especially when working across time-zones – most are an excuse to pretend people are working, most are poorly managed, and it is much more efficient to seek input on policy documents by sharing drafts (if relevant using multi-authoring tools) than it is to do so in an online meeting;
  • Be accepting of varying cultural digital practices, but make it clear if any of these offend you and explain why; and
  • Be strict in clamping down on any use of digital technologies for sexual harassment or other forms of abuse – these should be reported immediately through standard existing safeguarding procedures;
  • Find ways to mitigate the personal costs to team members of using digital technologies – remember that costs of internet connectivity, hardware and apps can be high for individuals, especially in economically poorer contexts;
  • Always ensure that team members are fully trained in how to use the digital technologies chosen by the team, and are fully aware of protocols concerning security, safety and privacy;
  • Ensure that all material and data relating to the team’s research activity is kept as digitally secure as possible, encrypted on trustworthy servers, and with strong password protection;
  • Always explain if you are recording a meeting, and do not do so if any team member objects – also, don’t be critical of those who object for whatever reason.

With research participants

  • Always explain to research participants how you will use and protect  any digital data that you generate together;
  • If you need participants to use any digital technologies, ensure that they are fully trained in their use;
  • Never force participants to use a specific piece of digital technology (or app) – always try to use the technologies with which they are familiar;
  • Never use digital surveillance or tracking mechanisms without the explicit and fully informed permission of participants – and even then try to find an alternative (you never know who else might be accessing the information);
  • Do all you can to protect participants from harm or abuse from their use of digital technologies.

Think about the environmental impact of the digital technologies you are using, and mitigate their harms

Digital technologies are often seen as a good way to reduce environment harm, but this is by no means always so, and many practices in the digital technology sector are anti-sustainable (see further here).  Those who consider that environmental harm should be included within safeguarding should be aware of the following:

  • The ICT sector contributes more carbon to the atmosphere than does the airline industry (see here from 2017) – virtual conferences are not carbon-neutral;
  • Video uses much more bandwidth and electricity than does audio (see here) –encourage participants in online meetings to keep their video off when they are not speaking;
  • Never contribute to e-waste by purchasing new digital tech just for the sake of the research grant – do all you can to repair and reuse your digital tech, and only purchase new when you absolutely have to (see the The Restart Project for examples and evidence);
  • Use digital tech (both hardware and software) that is as environmentally sustainable as possible;
  • Minimise the use of electricity (including in data servers, device production, and device usage), and where possible use renewable powered energy (such as solar mobile devices);
  • Purchase and use digital tech(including apps) from companies that are committed to minimal environmental impact (not just satisfying carbon emissions criteria);
  • Always switch off digital tech when not in use, and don’t just put them on standby;
  • Consider conducting an environmental audit of all digital tech used in your research.

Version 2

4th June 2021

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Resolving the COVID-19 crisis in the UK

The UK has the ninth worst death rate (per head of population) from COVID-19 in the world at 120 per 100,000, and this is the third worst of the 20 most affected countries (Johns Hopkins, 9 January 2021; just behind Italy and Czechia); the total number of deaths (within 28 days of a positive test) now being more than 80,000 BBC, 9 January 2021). More worryingly the number of new cases remains around 60,000 despite the recent partial lockdown, and deaths per day are currently over 1000 (UK Government, 9 January 2021). Furthermore, the number of deaths is likely to rise rapidly perhaps to around 2000 a day in a fortnight as the effects of the recent surge in infections work their way through over-stretched hospitals.

None of this need have happened if:

  • the UK government had acted with leadership, foresight and wisdom over the last year; instead it has always acted too little and too late, often with calamitous mis-judgement (see critique of the government’s failures written in April 2020); and
  • more people had responded to the crisis responsibly and wisely, caring for others as much as they did for themselves, and not trying to push the boundaries of what limited restrictions the government had put in place.

What little we know, but what we should have acted on

It is remarkable how much we still don’t know about COVID-19, despite all of the valuable research that has been done such as the creation of new vaccines and the discovery of treatments that can reduce death rates of the most seriously ill. However, we do clearly know enough for the UK government to have acted very differently over the last year. Among the most important things we do know are that:

  • Countries that rapidly put in place comprehensive lockdown measures and keep them in place until the number of remaining cases is very low, have not only had lower overall mortality rates, but their economies are also recovering more quickly. The UK government has consistently gone into lockdown (or restrictions) too late, eased lockdown too early, and has never therefore got on top of the coronavirus. Particularly stupidly, the lockdown in November-December 2020 was nowhere near strict enough, and was foolishly eased in the anticipation that people could see their families over Christmas.
  • Many countries with a history of using masks (such as China, including Hong Kng and Macau) or that have made them mandatory (such as Malaysia and Vietnam; but also many African countries) have been able effectively to limit or reduce infection rates. Much of the debate around mask use has been because of unwarranted confusion about whether masks reduce the chance of the wearer catching COVID-19, or of this actually protecting others (see my post in March on Face Masks and COVID-19). Selfish, individualist societies, where people care much more about themselves than about others and therefore don’t wear masks have generally suffered badly from COVID-19.
  • The fetishisation of the R-number has caused unfortunate misunderstandings and led to many more deaths than would have otherwise been the case. The UK government has seemed to place inordinate emphasis on the reproduction number (R = the average number of secondary infections produced by a single infected person), rather than on the actual numbers of people dying. R is obviously important, but there is a huge difference in impact between a higher R number when total infections are low, and a lower R number when infections are high. Many more people in the short term are going to catch the infection (and die) when thousands are already infected even with a R-number well below 1, than will catch it if only a few people are infected and the R number is 2 or 3. This is crucial, because the government should have done much more to reduce new infections in the summer to virtually zero, and should have acted much more quickly in October when numbers started to rise again (lessons should have been learnt from the experiences of Australia and New Zealand).
  • Too much reliance was placed on digital technologies. It is remarkable how the much-lauded NHS app (in its various incarnations) is now never mentioned by the government. Moreover, it was very expensive: in September 2020, it was estimated to have cost more than £35 million. The entire UK test and trace service has been a catalogue of disasters, but the expenditure on an app that was meant to be a silver bullet was truly misplaced, and the only people to have benefitted were the companies involved in developing it! As many people warned, digital technologies are invariably a solution in search of a problem, and the failure of previous digital initiatives should have been a clear warning to the government.
  • Islands have a clear potential advantage in protecting their inhabitants from COVID-19. The UK has very clear borders that are relatively easy to “protect”, unlike so many other countries in Europe, and yet it has been very tardy in introducing restrictions for those croissing its borders (either way). Island states, especially New Zealand (only 25 deaths) and Iceland (only 29 deaths) with wise governmetns have been able to ensure that infections and deaths have been kept to a minimum by imposing very strict controls. Thus New Zealand specifies unequiovocally that “All people entering New Zealand must go immediately into managed isolation or quarantine facilities. They will remain there for at least 14 days and must test negative for COVID-19 before they can go into the community”.
  • People respond to clear and simple messages, when they are delivered by trusted leaders. Unfortunately, the UK’s blustering leadership has prevaricated and vastly over-complicated the messages to those living in the UK during the pandemic. Things were made far worse, and trust evaporated, when Dominic Cummings did not resign following his breach of COVID restrictions in May 2020, which made many people in the country think that there was one rule for those in power, and another for everyone else. With confused (and weak) messages, alongside a growing belief that it was alright to tweek the rules a bit, it was scarcely surprising that so many people failed to act responsibly in the latter part of 2020 when COVID-19 ran out of control.
  • It is not the new variants that have caused the recent dramatic rise in infections; it is people’s behaviour. Put simply, if everyone focused on protecting others from catching COVID-19, then regardless of the variant the number of infections would be minimised. Yet the government and news media persist in “blaming” the new variant for the recent dramatic increase in infections, which gives completely the wrong message to people. It is high time that we were open and honest about the fact that these recent very high infection rates have been caused primarily by people’s behaviour in December; if people were not giving the infection to others, then there would be no way that these others would catch COVID-19 – regardless of how infectious the variant is. We need to realise that perhaps one-third of infections are asymptomatic, and therefore that many people who feel perfectly well are probably giving COVID-19 to others.

What we should have done; but it’s never too late to take action

Based on the above, it seems fairly clear what the government should have done, but didn’t. This is not that dissimilar to what wise voices were saying back at the start of the pandemic (see my list in April of questions tbe government still needs to answer over its failures). Neil Ferguson and his team’s modelling back in March, although decried by some not only at the time but also subsequently, does indeed seem to have been quite an accurate prediction of what was going to happen, particularly as far as a second wave was concerned and especially given the lack of knowledge at the time about the precise dyamics of COVID-19. Anyone who read that March paper should have been left in no doubt that we were going to see at least 80,000 deaths from COVID-19. Those who argued vociferously and publicly otherwise should acknowledge their mistake and share some of the responsibility for the subsequent national vaccilation about the direction in which the pandemic was heading. We are already past this level, and many, many more are sadly going to die. Each one is a tragedy for their families and those cloe to them. There are absolutely no excuses for ayone saying that they were not aware of how serious the scale of the pandemic was going to be in November 2020-March 2021.

The creation of vaccines to counter the effects of COVID-19, as well as better treatment protocols identified over the past year, provide some hope for the future. However, drawing on the above evidence, the government still needs to take further steps immediately if the UK population and economy are going to be able to reduce the scale of suffering and damage that it has already caused. The following would seem to be wise actions (in approximate order of priority):

  1. Lead rather than react; be ahead of the pandemic. The Government must take control of the situation, and show real and decisive leadership in tackling it. All too often the Prime Minister and his cabinet have dithered, and as a result failed to protect the British people. If tighter restrictions had been in place in December, there wouldm have been many fewer than the 417,570 people tested positive in the last seven days. They should have known and planned for the scale of what has happened. They are culpable for their failure.
  2. Much tighter restrictions should be placed on personal mobility immediately, and they should be kept in place until the number of new infections is in hundreds rather than tens of thousands. This is likely to be a minimum of six weeks and possibly much longer, regardless of the hopefully positive effects of the vaccinations. The long term economic impact of COVID-19 would be far less severe with a shorter sharper lockdown than it will be if the government continues to try to pursue its on-off policy while maintaining relatively high levels of infection.
  3. Face masks should be made compulsory for all people both outdoors and indoors at all times (other than in a person’s own home). This should apply to those jogging, running or cycling, as well as to those just walking. Sanitation points should be made freely available in all workplaces, shops, bars/restaurants and entertainment areas.
  4. All people arriving in the UK should be required to show evidence of an appropriate negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival. As an island, the UK has the advantage of being able to manage its borders, and it needs to do so effectively so that additional infections are not brought into the country, especially of the inevitable new variants of COVID-19 that will emerge. It would also be a great gesture of our national care for others if we insisted on everyone leaving the UK also being tested.
  5. The vaccination programme must be delivered effectively and efficiently. In general, the priority system seems broadly appropriate, but insufficient priority has been paid to those aged over 90, staff working for companies that provide care at home for the elderly, as well as GPs and other medical staff (all of these should be in the highest priority category) and indeed teacher. With 46,000 healthcare staff off work, an already over-stretched NHS has become even less able to manage the impending crisis. This is unacceptable carelessness on behalf of the government. Moreover, the vaccination policy and practice needs to be very much more transparent than it currently is.
  6. A really efficient and effective test, trace and control system must be put in place once the number of new infections has reached less than 1000 a day. It is impossible for testing and tracing to work effectively with the level of infections that we now have. However, for longer term viability and success, once numbers have reduced to a manageable level (as they were for much of the summer of 2020) it is critically important that we have in place an appropriate and high quality epidemic montoring system that can prevent COVID-19 and its successor pademics from catching hold.
  7. We should put in place now mechanisms to ensure that effective control against COVID-19 is in place for the latter part of 2021. This must ensure that sufficient vaccines are in place (preferably of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine) for GP surgeries to deliver them effectively as they have done for may years with the annual influenza vaccine over the next year, and indeed in future years as well.

Each of these seven action points could have easily been put in place by the government during the summer and early autumn of 2020. It failed to do so and is therefore culpable for the excessive numbers of deaths that we are now seeing. It seems that Johnson, his advisers and senior ministers all seemed to prioritise a focus on getting an easy deal done over post-Brexit trade and relations with countries in the European Union, and therefore took its collective eye off the COVD-19 ball.

It is, though, not just the goverment’s fault. Everyone who has given COVID-19 to someone else is also partly responsible. We should not have needed the government to order us what to do. Surely, knowing what we do about COVID-19, we should all have acted reponsibly and wisely by limiting our personal contacts as much as possible. It is self-evident that we have failed to do this. We can, though, all make a difference now. Wherever we can over the next two months as many as possible of us should choose to stay at home. It only needs one contact to start a new chain of infection. Sadly, trying to circumvent the regulations that have been put in place seems to have become a national pastime; perhaps this is Dominic Cummings’ lasting legacy. Any excuse for not adhering to them seems to be acceptable to the person making it. In part this is again the government’s fault. Why on earth, for example, was “local area” not defined when the government permitted outdoor exercise within it? For one person it is somewhere within a 30 minute drive; for another it might just be within walking distance of home. However painful it is, we all need to act even more responsibly than we did in March-April. I hope Chris Whitty (the UK’s Chief Medical Officer) is right when he said on BBC Radio 4 this morning that we are at the peak of the outbreak, but I fear he is not. Given the very large number of new infections that we are still having, death rates are bound to increase further for at least two more weeks. At least Matt Hancock said yesterday that “every time you try to flex the rules that could be fatal“; such a shame that this message has not been clearer from the government before. We, the people, need to act where the government has failed. We can make a difference, but we need to care for each other more than we do for ourselves – as the brilliant staff in our NHS strive to do every moment of every day.

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Digital environments and social media

Having recently written a post reflecting on aspects of power relationships and control through digital systems, I just thought that it might be helpful to share the list below of those digital systems and social media that I generally use so that others can know how to interact with me should they wish:

Digital environments that I use for public interaction

  • e-mails – multiple accounts, some integrated through Outlook/Office 365 (mainly formal work-related – contact via Royal Holloway, University of London) and others (mainly private) through Apple Mail. This remains my main mode of digital communication, largely because my e-mail account is one central place where people can send me material they want me to read!
  • WordPress (since 2008, although I began blogging earlier in 2007) – mainly for work-related issues, but also for personal views and opinions – for links to my various blogs see http://unwins.info. Interestingly, I am now blogging much less than I used to with views in recent years being half of the 30,349 I had in 2011.
  • Zoom – as have so many people during COVID-19, I have come to use Zoom quite extensively for large group meetings as well as personal ones, and it has largely replaced my former use of Skype. I particularly like its ease of use, and the way that it enables me to deliver live presentations through using its background feature.
  • Elgg (open source social networking software) – but sadly this is little used by others, and so I only tend to use it for small work-related groups (and in part as a replacement for Moodle).
  • Slack (sadly bought by Salesforce in December 2020) as a group communication platform – no longer sure how long I will continue to use it.
  • Moodle – the environment we’ve used for various courses at Royal Holloway, University of London and beyond; also where we used to make our ICT4D course materials freely available.
  • Twitter – joined in January 2009 – mainly for sharing information about our research and practice (several different accounts including @unescoict4d and @TEQtogether for research, and @timunwin for personal) – am using it much less than I used to, because the character limit tends to lead to short soundbites that oversimlify issues, and it has become a place dominated by “politically-correct” resonating rhetoric.
  • Facebook – joined in November 2006 – mainly used to share things that interest me, but also use for work-related groups (such as the ICT4D Group created in April 2007 and now with around 5.5K members, and the TEQtogether Group) – I’m again using it much less than I used to, especially since the dreadful new desktop/laptop version was introduced.
  • Microsoft Teams and assorted other Microsoft apps such as Skype for Business and Yammer (social networking; bought by Microsoft in 2012) – the basic environment adopted by Royal Holloway, University of London some time ago (and so I really have to use it to communicate with colleagues there), but also widely used in other enterprises. I find it rather clunky, in much the same way that I also never liked Microsoft’s Sharepoint (launched back in 2001); I still try to use these as little as possible.
  • I’m beginning to use Miro (an online whiteboard) for team work and collaboration.

Environments that I will not use

So, definitely don’t ask me to collaborate with you using the following:

  • Any Google environment (including Cloud, Drive, Chrome) – and especially if I have to sign in with a Google account (I refuse to have one). Exceptionally, I will occasionally use a Google environment providing I don’t have to sign in – but I would prefer to be sent documents in a way that is easier for me, such as by e-mail.
  • WeChat – I may well have to use this one day to be able to communicate in China and with Chinese friends since it is becoming so ubiquitous and essential there, but for the moment I don’t want too many governments having easy access to too much information about me.
  • Sina Weibo – similar reservations to the above, but I am also getting too old to learn to microblog in Chinese.

Environments that I use for private communication

The following are some of the environments that I use for private communication, and will not use for professional purposes (so please don’t ask me, for example, to join a WhatsApp group):

  • WhatsApp – although I almost stopped using it when it was purchased by Facebook. I only use it with family and friends, and most definitely will not use it for public or professional groups (so there is no point in asking me to join a group).
  • Signal – I use this privately because of its security, usability, and open source build – and it’s also free.
  • Instagram – for posting images of things that interest me (I may well soon start to use it to share information about our research and practice, since Instagram is increasingly being used effectively by businesses for this).
  • Dropbox – for sharing large files with friends.
  • Skype – for personal video discussions – although I have used it much less since 2011 when it was purchased by Microsoft.

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Filed under digital technologies, ICT4D, social media, Social Networking

On managerial control and the tyranny of digital technologies

I have written many times before about the changing balances of power enforced by most digital technologies, but three recent incidents have focused my mind yet again on the shifting relationships of control brought about by the use of such technologies.

Tales from a worker…

  • I was invited to be a speaker at an online event using a particular technology with which I was not very familiar (Streamyard). I tried both of the browsers that I usually use (Firefox and Safari), and although the former enabled me to use some of Streamyard’s functionality, I could not do everything that I had wanted to use (and usually do) when giving an online presentation. Streamyard recommends Chrome, but I limit my use of Google products as much as possible, and refused to download it just so I could give one short presentation. I fear that the organisers did not appreciate my obduracy, and were surprised that I kept receiving error messages when trying to use some of Streamyard’s functionality.
  • I also belong to a civil society organisation that has recently gone over to using a particular app for managing the activities of volunteers. Previously, the administrator used to circulate details of rotas directly to the e-mail boxes of volunteers, letting us know when we were required and also providing reminders nearer the time. We have just received a message saying that the new automated system has been set up, and I have to check “my rotas” periodically to see what I am scheduled to do, and if necessary arrange swaps with others. Now, that obviously makes life easier for the administrator, but adds greatly to my time load because I have to log on to the system, negotiate its far from perfect functionality, see what I am down to do, and then note this in my diary. This is many more clicks than just opening an e-mail sent to me! The centre benefits; the volunteers have more work to do!
  • I was likewise doing some work for an organisation that uses Microsoft Teams, and when I requested a document, rather than it being sent to me I had to got into Teams, find where it was located (often in a crazily obscure sub-folder), download it onto my device (which often took some considerable time), and only then was I able to open the file and read it. If only someone could simply have sent it to me, or even just sent me an accurate link so I could open it online.

All of these examples illustrate ways through which digital technologies are being used to shift the balance of work away from administrators/managers at the “centre” and towards the employees/volunteers at the periphery, whilst concentrating the actual power ever more at the centre. My hunch is that the net wastage of time within such systems has gone up, that inefficiency has increased, and that the extraction of labour power from human employees has likewise increased. Digital technologies rather than improving the efficiency of systems, have become a means through which work/labour has not only increased but has also become very much more dehumanised and exploited by those at the “centre”.

Changing the balance of power

There are many ways through which such dehumanisation and exploitation take place, but the following are some of the most prevalent:

“Papers” for meetings: a historical legacy

I am old enough to remember the days when staff were sent papers (even in manilla envelopes) sufficiently far in advance before a meeting so as to be able to read and annotate them by hand. As an employee I received them, but it was the management/administration team who actually printed and distributed them. From the early- to mid-1990s, with the introduction of MIME, attachments became possible, and very swiftly, papers for meetings (and everything else as well) started to be sent by e-mail. In the early days, employees were often even required to print them off themselves and bring them to the physical meeting (a ridiculous multiplication of effort and expense). The balance of direction had shifted. No longer could the employee just open the package; now they had to save, open and print the files themselves – and that was in the days before you could bring your laptop to a meeting. Today, as digital systems have become ever more complicated and sophisticated, all the administrators have to do is upload documents once onto a centralised digital administration or management system, and then all relevant employees or users each have to log on, find the file, download it (be it on Basecamp, Trello, Asana, Teams, Slack, SAP, Google Drive, DropBox or wherever), and then read it. All of these stages take additional time for employees, and many are problematic and frustrating to use. While such systems clearly benefit the central generators of content, the total amount of time spent by all of the users who need to access it has increased.

Multiple overlapping systems: who decides which system to use?

For people only working in a single organisation and trained to use a single main digital system or environment, the time wasted in accessing digital content is bad enough. For those working across organisations, each with different systems, it becomes a whole lot worse. Not only are users encouraged to leave all of their systems on all the time so that they know what is happening or required immediately, but they are frequently also expected to reply instantaneously. This is neither possible nor sensible. Moreover, leaving your systems on means that others can see if you are there and contactable, which is not always helpful!

Extending the working day

This is perhaps the most obvious and yet insidious “benefit” of digital technologies. I’m old enough to remember the notion of a working day being “9 to 5” – although confess that I have always tended to spend longer “in the office” than that! However, even before COVID-19 helped to create a 24 hour working day, digital technologies have been used by employers dramatically to extend the working day, whilst at the same time claiming it is in the employees’ interests. This is particularly seen, for example, in the expectation by many managers that employees are contactable all hours of the day and night by e-mail, or even worse now through invasive social media messages. Long gone are the days when London commuters locked their safes, finished the day at 5 pm and got on over-crowded smoke-filled trains for the long commute to the suburbs. The commute has often now become the time to respond to digital messages, and once home people are then also frequently expected to do online training in the comfort of their homes. Travel to work, and the sanctuary of the home – all times previously free from employment-related labour – have now been incorporated into normal work expectations.

The all-seeing eye

More concerning than the extension of the working day, though, are the many ways through which employers now monitor every aspect of an employee’s work – reflecting both a collapse in trust, and an intent yet further to maximise extraction of the labour power of employees. This goes far beyond the use of digital fingerprints or retinal scans that check when an employee enters an employer’s premises, to the spatial monitoring of their personal digital devices and their every use of the employer’s digital management system; some are already microchipping their employees, in the name of making life easier for them (see for example, Metz, 2018; Schwartz, 2019).

Wasting time in digital meetings – just because we can meet, doesn’t mean we should waste so much time online in them!

Most face-to-face management meetings are a waste of time for the majority of people attending them. Invariably they are held for the sake of holding them, for the performance, and as a way of “management” controlloing “staff”. The proliferation of online meetings during COVID-19 has dramatically exacerbated this problem, and the difficulty of picking up the sensuous physical indicators between people has actually also often caused damaging misunderstandings that would have been less likely during a physical meeting. Just because it is possible for many people to participate in online meetings at all hours of the day and night does not actully mean that this is a valuable use of time. Participating in online meetings is rarely productive work!

Digitally enabled co-production of content is not always a good use of time

The potential for many people to work together in creating a single document can be greatly facilitated by the use of digital authoring tools. However, this crafting process can actually take much longer for people to interact with, and the net outcome is not necessarily any better than traditional editorial commentary systems. Working with different colleagues in various ways to craft texts through COVID-19 has been fascinating, and has reignited concerns I have previously had that most such usage of digital technologies actually increases the total time spent on “writing” without necessarily producing a better outcome. Furthermore, so called more “democratic” digital systems actually usually still contain subtle power structures. The first person to comment on a shared document, for example, exerts great influence on the remaining respondents. In contrast, where colleagues each respond to a central editor without seeing the comments of other team members, this “first respondent” bias is not present.

Why on earth would you want to attend a Zoom webinar where you aren’t even allowed to speak?

One of the greatest recent forms of control – and time-wasting – has been the proliferation of Zoom webinars, where an audience is invited to a view-only platform without being able to see each other or participate interactively beyond a limited chat facility. What a power relationship! Almost every company, international organisation (especially UN agencies) and civil society organisation I know has got on the bandwagon of inviting people to join Zoom webinars. If I were to accept all of the invitations I have received, my diary would be full mutliple times over every hour of the day and night! But most of these are dreadfully presented, and a complete waste of time, quite simply because it is much quicker to read something than it is to listen to someone talking to the background of a shared overcrowded and poorly designed slide deck! This is not to suggest that we should not try to use digital technologies to interact at a distance, but we should try to do so in as open and democratic way as possible (this is at least what we tried to do successfully with the ICT4D2020 Non-Conference, as well as with the launch of the Education for the Most Marginalised report #emmpostcovid19, or which more than 350 people were registered).

In conclusion

These are but a few of the countless ways through which digital technologies are being used to impose new systems of control, and to shift that balance of work and time away from the “centre” (or employer/manager) to the “periphery” (worker, employee, volunteer). In the academic part of my like, I encounter this increasing everyday exploitation in so many ways:

  • through the increased amount of time that online marking takes;
  • through the time-consuming online grant application forms that need to be completed,
  • in having to submit ghastly unintelligible spreadsheets online to report on grant expenditure;
  • through being required to use the frequently dreadful journal online processes when asked to review papers for them;
  • in being required to process and provide comments on job applications online;
  • in reviewing online fellowship and grant applications…

The list could go on, but my essential points are that many of us who experienced pre-online life find the new systems much more time consuming than they were previously, and most of them represent increasingly centralised control of professional working life. In the name of efficiency and democracy, many digital “solutions” actually create sytstems that are much less efficient and much more centralised and controlling than they were previously.

This is also a call for change; a call for the wise to say enough is enough. It is a call for those designing these systems to make them serve the interests of the workers rather than the masters, a call for the overthrow of the tyrannical powers of the digital barons, and a challenge to those who seek digitally to enslave the masses. We, the people, have the power in our hands to reject such control – all we need to do is to determine our own digital boundaries (for a summary of mine, read here), and make those who wish to control us instead to serve us through them. Above all, we need to reclaim our own physical and sensuous experience of reality, unmediated by the powers of digital control.

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Filed under digital technologies, Empowerment, ICT4D

Session on digital inclusion at online IGF 2020

This has been a crazy week of over-dosing on Zoom for those attending the online IGF 2020 (made worse by too many slide-decks). How I wish I was physically back with real friends in real Poland, having real conversations and drinking real Polish beer and cherry vodka!

However, it was really great to participate in the GIZ-convened session WS #255 on Digital (in)accessability and universal design this morning (my time!). Huge thanks are due to Paul Horsters (from GIZ) who brought us all together, and to Edith Kimani (Deutsche Welle) who was an excellent moderator, as well as those providing sign language and captioning. It was also excellent to have such a diverse range of other speakers (none of whom used the dreaded slide-decks!): Bernd Schramm (GIZ), Irene Mbari-Kirika (inABLE), Bernard Chiira (Innovate Now), Claire Sibthorpe (GSMA) and Wairagala Wakabi (CIPESA).

As part of the workshop we wanted to produce an output that others could use in their own work, and so have crafted a mind-map in various formats that we hope will be of use to everyone committed to working with persons with disabilities to ensure universal digital inclusion. A WordArt summary of everything in the mind-maps is also shown below:

The mind map that includes summaries of all the individual presetnations as well as responses to the questions asked during the workshop is available below in various formats:

Mind-map of workshop

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Filed under Accessibility, Africa, Beer, digital technologies, Disability, Education, ICT4D, ICTs, inclusion, Inequality

Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised

Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread.  It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]

This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised.  It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war.  Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]

The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA

http://hiram1555.com/2016/10/21/presidential-debates-indicate-end-of-us-empire-analyst/

Source: Hiram1555.com

I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv]  One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power.  Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power.  Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.

The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states.  Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi]  These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.

Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century.   President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise.   Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own).  China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]

Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality.  China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.

An ever more digital world

https://www.forbes.com/sites/columbiabusinessschool/2020/04/21/how-covid-19-will-accelerate-a-digital-therapeutics-revolution/

Source: Forbes.com

The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19.  Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x]  Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.

There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]

One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19.  While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved.  For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity.  Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]

There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest.  First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling.  This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]

Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.

Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.

https://www.wired.com/story/phones-track-spread-covid19-good-idea/

Source: Wired.com

A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance.  Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii]  However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]

One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them.  In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community.  However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.

Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics.  Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.

Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-herd-immunity-meaning-definition-what-vaccine-immune-covid-19-a9397871.html

Source: Independent.co.uk

Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world.  Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm.  Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future.  People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.

The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail.  The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition.  This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways.  Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx]  Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world.  Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.

There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently.  Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.

We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.

Increasing global inequalities

https://gulfnews.com/photos/news/indian-migrants-forced-to-walk-home-amid-covid-19-lockdown-1.1585394226024?slide=2

Source: Gulfnews.com

The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.

This is already all too visible.  Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi]  In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii]  In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv]  The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv]  People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi]  The list of immediate crises grows by the day.

More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed.  It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm.  Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present.   Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives.  Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives.  Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]

Looking positively to the future.

People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:

  • China is the global political economic power,
  • Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
  • Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
  • Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
  • There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.

In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer.  Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:

  • First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
  • This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
  • Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
  • Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised.  Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
  • Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
  • Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others.  It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.

I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice.  Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy  an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.


Notes:

[i] For current figures see https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ and https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6, although all data related with this coronavirus must be treated with great caution; see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/data-and-the-scandal-of-the-uks-covid-19-survival-rate/

[ii] Modi’s hasty coronavirus lockdown of India leaves many fearful for what comes next, https://time.com/5812394/india-coronavirus-lockdown-modi/

[iii] Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, might well be an exception with his $1 billion donation to support Covid-19 relief and other charities; see https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/7/21212766/jack-dorsey-coronavirus-covid-19-donate-relief-fund-square-twitter

[iv] See, for example, discussion in Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  I appreciate that such arguments infuriate many people living in the USA,

[v] See, for example, George Parker’s, We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, The Atlantic, June 2020 (preview) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/.

[vi] Based on figures from https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ on 15th April 2020.  For comparison, Spain had 39.74 reported deaths per 100,000, Italy 35.80, and the UK 18.96.

[vii] There are many commentaries on this, but The Wall Street Journal’s account on 9 February 2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-trade-war-reshaped-global-commerce-11581244201 is useful, as is the Pietersen Institute’s timeline https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-investment-policy-watch/trump-trade-war-china-date-guide.

[viii] For a good account of his use of language see Eren Orbey’s comment in The New Yorker, Trump’s “Chinese virus” and what’s at stake in the coronovirus’s name,  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name

[ix] China’s massive long-term strategic investments across the world, not least through its 一带一路 (Belt and Road) initiative, have placed it in an extremely strong position to reap the benefits of its revitalised economy from 2021 onwards (for a good summary of this initiative written in January 2020 see https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative)

[x] Kaplan, J., Frias, L. and McFall-Johnsen, M., A third of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown…, https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=DE&IR=T

[xi] This is despite conspiracy theorists arguing that those who were going to gain most from Covid-19 especially in the digital tech and pharmaceutical industry had been active in promoting global fear of the coronavirus, or worse still had actually engineered it for their advantage.  See, for example, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/technology/bill-gates-virus-conspiracy-theories.html, or Thomas Ricker, Bill Gates is now the leading target for Coronavirus falsehoods, says report, https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/17/21224728/bill-gates-coronavirus-lies-5g-covid-19 .

[xii] See, for example, Shah, H. and Kumar, K., Ten digital technologies helping humans in the fight against Covid-19, Frost and Sullivan, https://ww2.frost.com/frost-perspectives/ten-digital-technologies-helping-humans-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, Gergios Petropolous, Artificial interlligence in the fight against COVID-19, Bruegel, https://www.bruegel.org/2020/03/artificial-intelligence-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, or Beech, P., These new gadgets were designed to fight COVID-19, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-gadgets-innovation-technology/. It is also important to note that the notion of “fighting” the coronavirus is also deeply problematic.

[xiii] For my much more detailed analysis of these issues, see Tim Unwin (26 March 2020), collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response/

[xiv] For more on this see Tim Unwin (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and for a brief comment https://unwin.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/dehumanization-cyborgs-and-the-internet-of-things/.

[xv] Although, significantly, Chinese companies are also involved; see https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition

[xvi] For the work of the Gates Foundation and US pharmaceutical companies in fighting Covid-19 https://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Article/2020/03/27/Bill-Gates-big-pharma-collaborate-on-COVID-19-treatments

[xvii] There is a huge literature, both academic and policy related, on this, but see for example OCHCR (2014) Online mass-surveillance: “Protect right to privacy even when countering terrorism” – UN expert, https://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15200&LangID=E; Privacy International, Scrutinising the global counter-terrorism agenda, https://privacyinternational.org/campaigns/scrutinising-global-counter-terrorism-agenda; Simon Hale-Ross (2018) Digital Privacy, Terrorism and Law Enforcement: the UK’s Response to Terrorist Communication, London: Routledge; and Lomas, N. (2020) Mass surveillance for national security does conflict with EU privacy rights, court advisor suggests, TechCrunch, https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/15/mass-surveillance-for-national-security-does-conflict-with-eu-privacy-rights-court-advisor-suggests/.

[xviii] Kharpal, A. (26 March 2020) Use of surveillance to fight coronavirus raised c oncenrs about government power after pandemic ends, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-surveillance-used-by-governments-to-fight-pandemic-privacy-concerns.html; but see also more critical comments about the efficacy of such systems as by Vaughan, A. (17 April 2020) There are many reasons why Covid-19 contact-tracing apps may not work, NewScientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2241041-there-are-many-reasons-why-covid-19-contact-tracing-apps-may-not-work/

[xix] There are widely differing views as to the ethics of this.  See, for example, Article 19 (2 April 2020) Coronavirus: states use of digital surveillance technologies to fight pandemic must respect human rights, https://www.article19.org/resources/covid-19-states-use-of-digital-surveillance-technologies-to-fight-pandemic-must-respect-human-rights/ ; McDonald, S. (30 March 2020) The digital response to the outbreak of Covid-19, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/digital-response-outbreak-covid-19. See also useful piece by Arcila (2020) for ICT4Peace on “A human-centric framework to evaluate the risks raised by contact-tracing applications” https://mcusercontent.com/e58ea7be12fb998fa30bac7ac/files/07a9cd66-0689-44ff-8c4f-6251508e1e48/Beatriz_Botero_A_Human_Rights_Centric_Framework_to_Evaluate_the_Security_Risks_Raised_by_Contact_Tracing_Applications_FINAL_BUA_6.pdf.pdf

[xx] See, for example, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/the-environmental-impact-of-covid-19/ss-BB11JxGv?li=BBoPWjQ, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world, and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-co2-emissions/.

[xxi] See The Guardian (23 April 2020) ‘We’re in a prison’: Singapore’s million migrant workers suffer as Covid-19 surges back, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/singapore-million-migrant-workers-suffer-as-covid-19-surges-back

[xxii] Al Jazeera (6 April 2020) India: Coronavirus lockdown sees exodus from cities, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/india-coronavirus-lockdown-sees-exodus-cities-200406104405477.html.

[xxiii] Financial Times (13th April) China-Africa relations rocked by alleged racism over Covid-19, https://www.ft.com/content/48f199b0-9054-4ab6-aaad-a326163c9285

[xxiv] Global Citizen (22 April 2020) Covid-19 Lockdowns are sparking a hunger crisis in the UK, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/covid-19-food-poverty-rising-in-uk/

[xxv] Mahler, D.G., Lakner, C., Aguilar, R.A.C. and Wu, H. (20 April 2020) The impact of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: why Sub-Saharan Africa might be the region hardest hit, World Bank Blogs, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/impact-covid-19-coronavirus-global-poverty-why-sub-saharan-africa-might-be-region-hardest

[xxvi] Bridging the Gap (2020) The impact of Covid-19 on persons with disabilities, https://bridgingthegap-project.eu/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-people-with-disabilities/

[xxvii] Statista (Januarv 2020) https://www.statista.com/statistics/269329/penetration-rate-of-the-internet-by-region/

[xxviii] For a wider discussion of the negative environmental impacts of climate change see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/digital-technologies-and-climate-change/.

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Data and the scandal of the UK’s Covid-19 survival rate

Govt CovidI have held off writing much that is overtly critical of the UK government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, but can do so no longer. We have known for a long time that data published by governments across the world about infections is highly unreliable, although figures on deaths are somewhat more representative of reality.  The UK governments’s lack of transparency, though, about its Covid-19 data is deeply worrying, and suggests deliberate deceipt.  The following observations may be noted about the figures that are currently being published, and the ways in which official (and social) media use them.

  • Official infection rates are very unreliable and largely reflect the number of tests being done.  These figures are so meaningless that they should be ignored in public announcements and media coverage because they give the public completely the wrong impression.  Countries such as Germany are believed to be able to produce up to 500,000 tests a week (although their aim is to do 200,000 tests a day), whereas by 7th April there had only been 218,500 tests in total in the UK since the start of January. The UK government aims to achieve 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, but seems highly unlikely to meet this target; a figure of more than 10,000 tests per day in the UK was only first achieved on 1st April.  The official reported number of infected cases in Germany at 119,624 on 10th April is  likely to be somewhat nearer reality than the paltry 73,758 reported cases in the UK (Source: thebaselab, 10th April).  In practice, it seems that most of the UK figures actually refer to those who are tested in hospital as suspected cases, since there is negligible testing of the public in general to get an idea of how extensive the spread really is.  By keeping this figure apparently low, the UK government seems to be deceiving the population into believing that Covid-19 might be less extensive than in reality it is.
  • Figures for the number of deaths should be more reliable, but are also opaque.  Even with figures for deaths there is increasing cause for doubt, not least because of differences between countries reporting whether someone has died “from” or “with” Covid-19.  In practice, it is even more complex than this, since some countries (such as the UK), are publishing immediate data only on those who die in hospital.  Those who die in the community are only added into the total official figures at a later date.  By manipulating when these figures are officially added, governments can again deceive their citizens that the deaths may in the short-term be lower than they are in reality.  A good analysis of the situation in the UK has recently (8th April) been produced by Jason Oke and Carl Heneghan for The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM), which highlights the considerable discrepancies between data made available by the National Health Service (NHS) and Public Health England (PHE).  Not only does this make it difficult in the short-term for modellers and policy makers to know what is really happening, but it also gives a distorted picture to the public.  As this report also concludes “The media should be wary of reporting daily deaths without understanding the limitations and variations in different sources”.
  • Hugely unreliable mortality rates.  Combining published figures for infections and deaths gives rise to figures for mortality rates.  These figures are also therefore very unreliable.  Because of the low levels of testing, and yet the high number of deaths in the UK (8,958; Source: thebaselab, 10th April), the UK mortality rate is reportedly the second highest in the world at 12.15%.  This can be compared with Germany’s 2.18% (undoubtedly a much more accurate figure), Italy’s 12.77% (the highest in the world), and a global average of 6.06%.  As I have argued previously, though, these figures are largely meaningless, and the figures that really matter are the total number of deaths divided by the total population of a country.  Accordingly, to date, China has had only 0.23 deaths per 100,000 people, whereas Spain has had 33.88, Italy 30.23, France 18.80 and the UK currently 11.75 deaths per 100,000 (Source: derived from thebaselab, 10th April).  Put another way, the UK figure is 51 times more than the Chinese figure.  Such figures are far more meaningful than official mortality rates, and should always be used by the media (preferably using choropleth maps rather than proportional circles for total deaths).
  • Extraordinarily depressing recovery rates.  The UK’s current “recovery rate” is by any standards appalling.  As of 9th April reported figures for the number of people who have recovered from Covid-19 in the UK were between 135 (by the baselab, and worldometers) and 351 (by Johns Hopkins University).   This suggests a “recovery rate” of possibly only 0.18% in the UK (Source:  thebaselab, 10th April), in contrast with China’s 94.56%, Spain’s 35.45% and a global average of 22.2%.  In part this is again a result of data problems.  We simply don’t know how many people have been infected mildly, and how many have survived without even knowing they have had it.  It also reflects the fact that it takes time to recover, and many people are still in hospital who may yet recover.  However, the UK’s figures is the worst in the world for countries where there have been more than 50 cases of Covid-19.

Such figures raise huge questions for the British government and people:

  • Why are UK reported survival rates so low? Surely the government should want to do all it can to show the success of the NHS in treating patients and it should therefore publish the real figures?  That is unless, of course, these figures are truly bad.
  • What is the balance of numbers between those dying in hospital from Covid-19 and those leaving having recovered?  The rare euphoria that greets those who leave hospital having recovered (as with 101-year-old Keith Watson who was recently discharged from a hospital in Worcestershire) suggests that very few people have actually left hospital alive having been admitted with Covid-19.  Is the government trying to hide this?  Is the grim truth that you are likely to die if you go into hospital with Covid-19?  Does this mean that people are being admitted to hospital far too late because of the advice given by the NHS and its 111 service?  Should the NHS simply stop trying to treat patients with Covid-19? (An update noted below suggests that more than half of the people going into intensive care in UK hospitals with Covid-19 die).
  • Why did the government not act sooner?  Some of us had argued back in January of the threat posed by the then un-named new coronavirus (I first raised concerns on 20th January, and first posted about its extent in China on social media on 27th January).  It was very clear then (and not only with hindsight) that this posed a global threat.  Undoubtedly the WHO failed in its warnings, and did not act quickly enough to declare a pandemic, but many governments did act to get in supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), testing equipment, and ventilators.  The UK government has failed its people.  One quarter of my close family have probably already had Covid-19; many of my friends have also had it – some very seriously.  I guess therefore that between a quarter and a third of those living in the UK may already been ill with the pandemic (Update 13th April: this must be an exaggeration, as news media over Easter suggest that experts think the current figure of infections is only 10%; Update 26th April, the MRC-IDE at Imperial College modelling back from actual deaths, suggest that only some 4.36% of the UK population is infected).  They are individual human beings, and not just statistics.

These questions are hugely important now, and not just when a future review is done, because it is still not too late to act together wisely to try to limit the impact of Covid-19 in the UK.  The fact that the government has not yet been transparent and open about these issues is deeply worrying.  In trying to explain them the following scenarios seem likely.  I very much hope they are not true, and that the government can provide clear evidence that I am wrong:

1. Throughout, the government knew that the NHS would be overwhelmed by Covid-19, and has been doing all it can to cover up its own failings and to protect the NHS.  In 2016, a review called Exercise Cygnus was undertaken to simulate the impact of a major flu pandemic in the UK. The full conclusions have never been published, but sufficient evidence is in the public domain to suggest that it showed that the NHS was woefully unprepreard, with there being significant predicted shortages of intensive care beds, necessary equipment, and mortuary space.  In December 2016 the then excellent Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, conceded that “a lot of things need improving”.  It is now apparent that the government (largely including people who are still leading it) did nothing to rectify the situation, and must therefore be held in part responsible for the very high death rate in the UK.  Its failure to fund the NHS appropriately in recent years is but a wider symptom of this lack of care and attention to the needs of our health system.  I therefore find it very depressing that this government is now so adamant in asking us to protect the NHS; as shown on the cover of the document sent to all households in the UK (illustrated above), it seems to be more concerned with protecting the NHS (listed second) above saving lives (listed third).

2. The government has consigned those least likely to survive Covid-19 to death in their homes.  Despite claims that the government is caring for the most vulnerable, it seems probable that its advice to the elderly and those most at risk to stay at home was not intended primarily for their own good, but was rather to prevent the NHS from being flooded with people who were likely to die.  This is callous, calculating and contemptable.  On March 22nd, The Sunday Times published an article that stated that “At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings [the Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor] outlined the government’s strategy. Those present say it was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”. Downing Street swiftly denounced this report, but it remains widely accepted that even if these were not the exact words Cummings used, this was indeed the view of some of those at the top of the UK government at that time.  Subsequent evidence would support this.  Some, perhaps many, hospital trusts, for example, have clearly told their staff not to accept people who are very old and fall into the most vulnerable category.  Likewise, Care Homes have been told to care for Covid-19 patients themselves, since they may not be accepted in hospital. The British Geriatrics Society thus notes (30th March) that:

  • “Care homes should work with General Practitioners, community healthcare staff and community geriatricians to review Advance Care Plans as a matter of urgency with care home residents. This should include discussions about how COVID-19 may cause residents to become critically unwell, and a clear decision about whether hospital admission would be considered in this circumstance”
  • “Care homes should be aware that escalation decisions to hospital will be taken in discussion with paramedics, general practitioners and other healthcare support staff. They should be aware that transfer to hospital may not be offered if it is not likely to benefit the resident and if palliative or conservative care within the home is deemed more appropriate. Care Homes should work with healthcare providers to support families and residents through this”

This  policy incidentally (and also helpfully for the government) lowers the daily reporting death rate because such people are not counted as “dying in hospital”.

3. The use of digital technologies may be used to identify those unlikely to be given hospital treatment.  The government quite swiftly introduced online methods by which people who think that they fall into the extremely vulnerable category could register themselves, so that they might receive help and such things as food deliveries.  Whilst aspects of this can indeed be seen as positive, it also seems likely that this register could be used to deny people access to hospital services, since they are most likely to die even with hospital treatment.  If true (and I hope it is not), this would be a very deeply worrying use of digital technologies.  Nevertheless, care homes are being forced to hold difficult discussions with those they are meant to be caring for about end-of-life wishes, and all doctors and medical professionals are increasingly having to make complex ethical decisions about who to treat (see Tim Cook’s useful 23rd March article in The Guardian).

4. The government has tried to pass the blame onto the scientists. Early on in the crisis I was appalled to see and hear government spokespeople (including the Chief Medical Officer – so beloving of systematic reviews) saying that they were acting on scientific advice.  As some of us pointed out at the time, there is no such things as unanimity in science, and so it was ridiculous for them to claim this.  However, they seem to have been doing so, and in such a co-ordinated manner, because they were seeking to shift the blame in case their policies went wrong.  Leading a country is a very tough job, and those who aspire to do so have to make tough decisions and stand by them.  Fortunately, this position by the government is no longer tenable, especially now that academics are competing visciously in trying to prove that they are right, so that they can take the credit. Nevertheless, there remains good science and bad science, and it is frightening how many academics seem to be pandering to what governments and the public might want to hear.  Tom Pike (from Imperial College), for example, predicted (against most of the prevailing evidence) in a pre-print paper with Vikas Saini on 25th March that if the UK followed China (which it clearly wasn’t doing) the total number of deaths in the UK would be around 5,700, with there being a peak of between 210 and 330 people, possibly on 3th April.  Although he retracted this a few days later when it was blatantly obvious that his model was deeply flawed, news media who wanted a good news story had been very eager to publish his suggestion that the pandemic would not be as bad as others had predicted (he certainly got lots of pictures published of himself in his lab coat).  Likewise, at the other end of the scale, the IHME in the USA predicted that the UK would have 66,314 deaths in total by 4th August, rising to a peak of 2,932 deaths a day on 17th April.  This  might have been wishful thinking, because on 7th April, UK reported deaths were only 786, which was substantially below their model prediction of around 1250.  By then, though, their research had already hit the news headlines with lots of publicity.  Subsequently (as at 11th April), they revised their predictions to a peak of “only” 1,674 deaths a day (estimated range 651-4,143) with a cumulated total of 37,494 deaths.  These differences are very substantial, and emphasise that scientists often get it wrong.  Put simply, the UK government cannot hide behind science.  They can try to take the credit, but government leaders must also admit it openly when they have been wrong with the policies that they make based on the evidence.

In conclusion, by sharing these thoughts I have sought to:

  • Ask the UK government to be more open and transparent in the information that it provides about Covid-19;
  • Plead with media of all sorts to use data responsibly, and to be critical of claims by governments and scientists who all have their own interests in saying what they do; and
  • Encourage everyone to work together for the common good, openly and honestly in trying to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Above all, I write with huge respect for the many people in our NHS who have been working in the most difficult of circumstances to try to stem the tide of Covid-19.  Too many of them have already died; too many of them have become sick.

[Update 12th April: A report in The Times notes that “The death rate of Covid-19 patients admitted to intensive care now stands at more than 51 per cent, according to a study on a sample of coronavirus patients”.  The original report is by ICNARC, which showed that “Of the 3883 patients, 871 patients have died, 818 patients have been discharged alive from critical care and 2194 patients were last reported as still receiving critical care”. I should add that this is despite the very valiant efforts of our NHS staff]

[Update 14th April: Great to see that the BBC is at last reporting more responsibly about government reported deaths (based on those in hospital) being a serious underestimate of total deaths, and comparing trends of deaths with previous years – two useful graphs included and copied herewith below

deaths well above normal range - line chart      daily death updates are an underestimate since they exclude deaths outside hospital and are subject to reporting delays

Thanks BBC]

Updated 14th April

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