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COVID-19 in the Global South — cont.

Image from The Telegraph

This article is the second part of a Medium series by the MD4SG Working group on Development, in which we explore issues discussed by the group related to the public perception of COVID-19 within the African continent, misinformation spread through mediums such as WhatsApp and Facebook, the economic impact of COVID-19 and self-isolation in the developing world, and how data can be leveraged to improve coronavirus response and prevent larger outbreaks from occurring. In our first post we discussed healthcare considerations in the Global South, continued here by a discussion on privacy & security, social media, and government.

Privacy & Security

While many African countries continue to put effort into enacting privacy and data protection legislation that would regulate the collection, storage, and processing of individuals’ data and privacy rights, it is not lost on anyone that greater availability and processing of data would be instrumental in combating COVID-19. For example, in Uganda, health officials have used information from immigration departments to locate several individuals who had travelled on the same flights as persons who had tested positive for the virus. In South Africa, telecom companies agreed to give the government cell phone location data — to help identify individuals and areas where infections could be prevalent and in Kenya, mobile phones are being used to monitor individuals to ensure their compliance to quarantine locations. Whereas these efforts are well intentioned and noble in addressing the pandemic, the measures seem to be implemented without much legal oversight and privacy standards. India’s latest symptom tracking app has also stirred much controversy due to the mandatory requirements for citizens living in containment zones and government/private sector employees to utilize the app. Governments and other stakeholders such as telecom or technology companies should appropriately balance between disease surveillance and the digital privacy and data protection rights of its people. For example, the use of proposed contact tracing applications needs to be studied to ensure that before they are rolled out, individuals’ information is protected, collected in a way that safeguards their privacy, and is limited in use both in terms of purpose and time. Governments must also protect personal information of patients e.g., the identity of people who test positive should not be revealed to the public unless the individual consents or chooses to do so on their own accord and will.

Social Media

Before coronavirus cases arrived on the continent, members of the group commented on public discourse inquiring about the “lack” of cases seen on the continent. When hearing these discussions brought up, the group felt that many people expected Africa to have and conform with their pre-existing notions of the continent being disease ridden and full of despair. Now that a significant number of cases have begun to affect African countries, we continue to see negative sentiment in tweets and news articles. We believe that using public sentiment analyses of social media, more specifically tweets, could help us gain insight into the perceptions the world has about Africa and how they changed with the rise in the number of cases of COVID-19 on the continent. This analysis could help in exploring the effects of message types on user response and behavior in regards to coronavirus. Other variables such as cross-regional and cross-country differences could potentially be explored as well.

Another issue prominently seen on social media is misinformation. Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp are known to be harbingers of misinformation and the dynamic nature of these platforms not only allows for misinformation to be spread quickly but also very widely. For many marginalized groups misinformation stems from distrust of organizational structures and rightly so. Unfortunately the distrust of philanthropic organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have led to people throughout Sub-Saharan Africa spreading misinformation and refusing to adhere to policies instituted by these entities. Misinformation about COVID-19 being a biological weapon created by China/WHO has also led to physical harm through xenophobic attacks against Asians around the world. Recently in China, Africans have been falsely accused of spreading coronavirus and being evicted from their apartments. Outrage on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have led to interventions by government officials from the African Union to address these incidents, a first of its kind.

To limit the spread of misinformation, users of social media platforms should be held responsible along with the tech companies themselves. After their Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has built in fact checkers when people share articles but platforms like WhatsApp continue to be notorious breeding grounds for misinformation and even more so since these messages are encrypted and not subject to public view. To combat the rampant misinformation, WhatsApp has now limited the number of times messages could be forward within groups to 5. Since messages on this platform are encrypted, it is unclear how much it has helped to curb misinformation, but these efforts are laudable. WhatsApp has also partnered with the WHO to create WHO Health Alert, a chatbot service that provides credible information 24/7 about coronavirus. Members of our working group are interested in analyzing responses from Tech companies (i.e. Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.) in terms of what measures they have taken to inform the public about COVID-19 and quell the rampant misinformation seen on these platforms. Techniques such as using LDA to extrapolate topic modeling on messages or BERT for detecting fake news could be viable means of doing so. Members of the working group recently presented preliminary work in this area at the 2020 Harvard CRCS AI for Social Good workshop.

Government

Many citizens throughout the Global South don’t trust their governments, with many placing their trust in religious and traditional leaders. Trust is an issue that can affect whether or not citizens can have faith in their government to execute reasonable policies and how well citizens adhere to them. Members of our working group are interested in exploring this topic with regards to how trust in the government affects confinement policies and public assistance distribution. A question that sprung from this is: How did different groups or constituents, especially marginalized communities, experience the implementation of various responses to the pandemic?

As a key example, India’s government has imposed a sweeping lockdown since 24 March, which was due to end on 4 May, but has been recently extended until at least 8 June. Moreover, the lockdown is more strict than many western counterparts, where individuals must stay at home, as enforced by police supervision. Many cities within India also have a high population density, which means that the implementation of this lockdown forces households of multiple individuals to at times stay within a single room (as is the case in slums in big cities), unable to leave their houses for anything other than essential supplies. In addition, India’s labor structure is mostly composed of unorganised labor (94%), and within this segment, many individuals are migrant daily-wage laborers who have been drastically affected by strict lock-down conditions. Many of these migrant laborers have been forced to return home, and where the government has lacked infrastructure in helping transport these individuals, many of them have been forced to return by foot, enduring lengthy and perilous journeys. For these segments of the population, self-isolation in its current form is simply unfeasible, and government infrastructure in alleviating the difficulties is lacking (20% of the country, i.e. 270 million people are unbanked, making it difficult to even implement policy aimed at alleviating financial burdens of the crisis). These tensions have erupted in various cities in the form of protest, but ultimately the greater question is just how long trust in public institutions can continue in the global south when self-isolation is an impossibility for many.

From this, it would be interesting to explore how trust and political attitudes towards existing institutions and actors changed as a result of these social and economic policies (physical distancing, public relief, etc.) put in place. This is a vulnerable time for many within developing countries and similarly to the points discussed in the health section, a full understanding of these intricacies could help reform governmental efforts for future outbreaks and increase citizen trust.

The unfolding pandemic has put a severe strain on public finances across the world and required massive fiscal measures in the developed world. Developing countries facing similar challenges have sought public debt relief to support their efforts. A better understanding of the policy responses and innovations undertaken by governments in Africa in response to the crisis is important for the management of future crises. It is equally important to document the strategies undertaken to effectively communicate and coordinate these responses across all levels of the public administration in partnership with the civil society, religious and traditional leaders, and the private sector.

Conclusion + Future Work

The opportunity for this work to continue is ripe. Members of the group have had meetings with UNICEF officials in Paraguay, published and presented their work on group testing. Over the next few months we aim to split into separate sub-groups and begin actively addressing the issues we mentioned in this blog post. We are open for collaboration.

Written by Chinasa Okolo on behalf of the MD4SG Development Working Group. This is part of an ongoing conversation within the MD4SG Development Working Group — if you would like to join this conversation we are excited to have you! Please feel free to reach out to us at organizers@md4sg.com.

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Using algorithms, optimization, and mechanism design to improve access to opportunity for historically underserved and disadvantaged communities

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MD4SG is a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary initiative working to improve access to opportunity for under-served and disadvantaged communities. md4sg.com

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