How Citizen Engagement could have curbed the Covid-19 Pandemic

Hitting the two year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic this month has launched much discussion and reflection. From opinion pieces discussing what could have been done better by governments and public health institutions, to furthering steps that could have been taken by the public, to responding to science more quickly. While these are all critical points worth reflecting upon, there continues to be one critical element to support the discovery and response of fast-moving pathogens: citizen engagement.

The pandemic response by governments and health agencies world-wide was crippled by poor data leading to knee jerk decisions and policies that caused confusion and, quite frankly, did not stop the spread of the disease early on. With cases rising quickly and a response that was lacking in sound data, the public began losing trust quickly and did not know where to turn for information that would support their efforts to protect themselves and their loved-ones. This pandemic was missing the critical component of citizen engagement to alert individuals as to where they may encounter infections, and how to safely socially distance themselves in order to curb the spread of the disease. In this post, we examine the role citizen engagement could have played in the fight against Covid-19 and how it can prevent the same mistakes from happening again. 

How using telemetry to monitor disease could have informed the world early-on in the pandemic

In a hospital, the telemetry unit is where patients who have suffered a cardiovascular event such as heart attacks or strokes are constantly monitored electronically in order to ensure that their recovery is not complicated by other challenges. This approach allows the patient’s information to be captured and displayed in a central location for every healthcare provider on the floor to see and make life-saving decisions in real-time. 

This same philosophy applies to the pandemic. It has been reported that China purposefully withheld information from the rest of the world that they had discovered pneumonia cases that resembled SARS. Any journalist or scientist who tried to speak out about the mystery illness were silenced, ensuring valuable time was lost responding to the new disease. By using applications focused on telemetry and crowdsourcing, the rest of the world would not have had to rely on the Chinese government to truthfully report what they were seeing but instead could have relied on the data being uploaded by its citizens – at least until those platforms would be inevitably shut down. Even still, the early information then would have been compiled in a central location (in a privacy-preserving way, mind you) where health officials could begin to question and study the up-tick in disease-reporting in order to warn their own citizens of a possible threat. 

This life-saving information could have helped governments and health agencies around the world to make better informed decisions and begin to prepare for needs such as protective equipment and hospital staffing. And in the absence of Chinese participation in such a crowdsourcing app, the rest of the world could have benefited from the same early warning threat intelligence as the virus began to spread outside of China. In times of fast moving pathogens time is of the essence. It is possible that more lives could have been saved early on should the data have been available and ready to use. 

How governments could have taken action once China shared data on the virus with crowdsourcing information

There is no question that once confirmed evidence of Covid-19 came out from China it took time for governments and health agencies to respond. While agencies were still trying to wrap their hands around the idea that a virus was spreading, Covid-19 was already on planes traveling around the world.

While many countries around the world were waiting for guidance as to how to respond to this virus, citizens were left with more questions than answers. What we have learned throughout this pandemic is that waiting for large organizations to provide guidance on how to respond to an infectious disease can mean critical time lost, citizen infection and loss of life. If governments around the world had access to the data that their citizens were providing through crowdsourcing apps - governments would have had the flexibility and confidence to make decisions that would best protect the health of their nations. And of course, citizens could have already started taking action to protect themselves.

Think of it a little bit like the ‘Waze’ app. Citizens report accidents, or traffic allowing other citizens to avoid those places so that they can smoothly navigate their commute. In active cases such as Covid-19, citizens can use a privacy-preserving application to avoid areas that may cause a threat to their health, while governments and health agencies can use this data to communicate with their citizens, prepare and respond in real-time, provide life-saving supplies, build up hospital infrastructure, and prepare for possible supply-chain shortages.

It is not hard to imagine how crowdsourcing technology could have quickly stepped in to stop the rapid spread of Covid-19 and it is imperative that the world is prepared with such technology in order to better respond to the next Disease-X, especially now that terms like ‘social distancing’, ‘flattening the curve’, and ‘contact tracing’ are all part of our common lexicon.