The COVID-19 pandemic has been termed “the first global pandemic in the digital age.” Measures to combat the pandemic, including lockdowns and the need for social distancing, have forced many of our everyday spheres of activity online, including work, education, buying essentials such as food and medicine, and our social lives. Furthermore, digital tools are a widespread part of pandemic response itself, including using the online world for risk communication, as well as digital / online applications for contact tracing, quarantine monitoring, and more recently, vaccine distribution.

These changes have brought tremendous opportunities, allowing many activities that would otherwise have been interrupted to continue. Digital technologies also open up the opportunity of making pandemic control faster and more efficient through harnessing numerous and varied sources of data. However, inequalities in access to digital technologies and broadband have meant that some have been affected worse than others, along lines such as gender and socioeconomic status. In addition, there are many forms of work and other activities that simply cannot be undertaken online. Moreover, the use of digital technologies in pandemic control measures such as contact tracing and quarantine enforcement, have raised questions about cybersecurity and the protection of users’ personally identifiable information.

LIRNEasia’s work on the impact of COVID-19 on our society addresses all these aspects, drawing on our existing work under the themes of Disaster response, AfterAccess, Education, the Future of Work, Small and Medium Enterprises, Gender, and the Data, Algorithms, and Policy workstream.

During pandemic related shutdowns in 2020, we revisited our findings from the AfterAccess surveys of ICT use to explore challenges faced by digitally unconnected individuals in accessing education.  Often, data helped frame policy debates on remote education.

Given the importance of digital payments and digital presence during lockdown, we also explored existing data and participated in policy dialog related to how Small and Medium Businesses could survive and thrive in the “new normal”.

We also  explored several risk communication activities undertaken in Asia, and how risk communication may be used to build trust in populations, thereby motivating them to follow precautionary measures.   These findings were presented at international policy events as well as Sri Lankan academic events related to COVID-19.   More broadly, we continued our thinking and writing on communicating, use of evidence and decision making under uncertainty.

We looked at the promise and challenges of technology and data as tools to deal with the pandemic – for example, exploring the potential for wearable contact tracing technology.  Towards this, we initiated (as soon-to-be-completed) project exploring how health information and other related data are gathered and used as part of COVID-19 responses in Sri Lanka and Thailand, especially in terms of contact tracing and quarantine monitoring. We ask what kinds of information and data are collected, how they are gathered, and how they are used in the COVID-19 response. We also wish to identify lessons learned for future pandemics.  Results will be available soon. 2

Understanding how people were impacted day-to-day were impacted by the enforcement of pandemic-related lockdowns is important because we know different people were impacted differently.  Understanding how people coped is also important to designing solutions that rebuild better.  However, we grappled with the challenges of not being able to visit, travel or interview face to face various respondents.  During the second wave of the pandemic, when curfew was implemented in specific areas of Sri Lanka, we used an innovative e-Diary method to study a select group of respondents through intense by remote research.

We are continuing this (user or demand-side) research in a much larger scale through two ongoing surveys in India and Sri Lanka. Both are nationally representative of the population over the age of 18 in each country, and are designed to explore people’s behaviour related to work, accessing food, accessing non-pandemic health care and accessing education prior to, during and post-pandemic.  Results are expected May 2021.  The survey findings will be followed by qualitative research in both countries.  The project is part of a larger project that covers Asia, Africa and Latin America and is done with our long term research partners in those regions.


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