Claudia Scuriatti sheds light on the current public health crisis in the context of the Italian response, and explains why both the public and private sector should prioritise investments in digital innovation. 

It’s now widely recognized by the scientific community that COVID-19 spreads more readily and more efficiently than many of the viruses observed in modern history. This pathogen moves indiscriminately, irrespective of border restrictions or travel bans. So, in this catastrophic scenario in which nations worldwide are in lockdown to prevent the collapse of public health care systems, which direction should be taken to mitigate the long-term damage?

On May 4th , Italy should begin what is known as Phase Two . This new chapter in the COVID-19 response would initiate a partial reopening of economic activities .Facing such uncertainty, people are wondering about their livelihoods and their future. Once this lockdown is over, how do we start rebuilding?

Accurate data-based evidence has been fundamental to the mitigation of this outbreak. For instance, South Korea adopted innovation technologies such as smart quarantine information systems and fast-developed testing kits to test more than 20,000 people per day at over 600 testing sites. Through mass testing, the country achieved accurate statistics from an unparalleled data pool and succeeded in containing the outbreak without recurring to a stringent lockdown.

Another notable case characterized by success is that of Taiwan. Taiwan has demonstrated that the adoption of integrated data built on health care and migration information can keep the situation under control as the governing body works towards a long-term solution. Since the beginning of the outbreak, Taiwan proactively analysed data from national healthcare, migration, and customs to track the movement of infected individuals in an effort to locate possible clusters and raise awareness in areas at risk. In February 2020, Taiwan launched an ad hoc Entry Quarantine System (EQS), in which travellers arriving in the country could scan the QR code of the EQS and enter their information quickly. In the presence of a new contagion, the possession of a reliable digital platform provided Taiwanese authorities the ability to track the travel history of the infected and trace their previous contacts. By relaying this information to people in potentially at-risk areas through instant messaging, the country effectively and efficiently limited the escalation of the outbreak.

The development and application of bottom-up information sharing, public-private partnerships, and social coordination has allowed both South Korea and Taiwan to track down contagious individuals and administer self-isolating measures before the virus is passed on, thereby preventing the collapse of the public health system and the destruction of the economy, as we witnessed in Italy.

Since the infamous hunt for “Patient 0”, the Italian response has demonstrated a lack of clarity in regard to the statistics reported, and a lack of uniformity in the data collection and exchange methods between Italian regions. Up until mid-March, most Italian regions were only testing people with severe symptoms, leaving a large portion of the “probably asymptomatic” carriers out of the equation, which precipitated mass chaos. As the number of deaths spiked, misinformation ran rampant, while the data slowly trickled in. Although no countries could have been prepared for an emergency of this scope, Italy was particularly unprepared in terms of access to data. Accurate statistics are the cornerstone of a robust response; the population must be informed in order to avoid mass panic.

Evidently, the divergent national responses to the pandemic – particularly during the first two weeks of the outbreak – have led to dramatically different outcomes. The Taiwanese and South Korean models have demonstrated that big data, mass testing and coordination are key to control public health crises. Unlike Italy, these two nations were quick to employ cutting-edge technology such as open data, digital services, and e-government. However, it’s worth noting that Italy’s legislative system would have made it considerably difficult to utilize open data, and the country does not yet have the ability to do so, as data in Italy is not yet digitized, and a large portion of population lack advanced digital capacity. Taiwan and South Korea, on the other hand, have embarked on a decades-long digitization process facilitated by government intervention and investment in modern technology. Their recent economic growth is rooted in technological development through a series of investments in innovative digital services, digital government and lightning-fast connections.

The successful models of Taiwan and South Korea can teach Italy – and European democracies in general – a vital lesson. It’s not only possible to strike a balance between open data and privacy protection, it may just be the key to end this pandemic.

There is no doubt that every country has its own distinctive history, socio-political context and regulatory environment. Still, the approach of South Korea and Taiwan may be adopted by any democracy that is willing to adapt in order to survive – and thrive. So, how can Italy adapt? As Federica Mogherini (former EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) has said, the COVID-19 pandemic could be an opportunity to adjust policies and change course. Future direction depends on what individuals choose to do and what lessons we want to learn from this crisis. South Korea and Taiwan’s response to the current health crisis should teach Italy a very important lesson. That is, innovative technological development in conjunction with data protection policies must be the key driver of the Italian economic recovery.

Claudia Scuriatti holds a bachelor’s degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at LUISS Guido Carli and completed an MSc in Development Management at LSE. She is passionate about technological development and sustainability. Currently, she is working at FAO as Value Chain and Agribusiness Expert for the ESA-SMART team. 

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.