Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg points out that the same data-driven technologies we love to fear and hate are now helping to save lives

Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg points out that the same data-driven technologies we love to fear and hate are now helping to save lives

Not to diminish the superhuman efforts of nurses, doctors, and health-care workers worldwide, but sometimes, no matter how hard one tries, and no matter how selflessly one sacrifices, one stands no chance against a more powerful enemy. The new coronavirus, COVID-19, has proved to be such a foe. Were it not for technology, the battle against it would have been lost by now.

Math and technology, to be more precise. I say math, because understanding a concept as basic as “exponential growth” proved crucial for attacking the enemy head-on.

The successful containment of the epidemic in China, South Korea, and Japan has been attributed to strong governments and cultures that put society’s good ahead of private convenience. I would add that these countries also stand out for their students’ high math literacy. In the 2019 PISA rankings, produced by the OECD, China ranks first in math with a score of 591 out of 600, Japan ranks 6th, and South Korea is 7th. By contrast, Italy is in 31st place, Spain places 34th, and the United States ranks 37th.

PISA scores may have their shortcomings, but they do provide a rough idea of the math literacy of the average citizen in the countries that take part. And the fact that the countries with the highest rankings seem to have adopted the most effective containment strategies serves as a reminder that, ultimately, the reason we want better training in math and logic is not to land more lucrative jobs, but to make better decisions regarding our lives.

Technology has been the true champion in the fight against the spread of COVID-19. Here, I don’t mean the ICUs and respirators without which severely ill patients would not stand a chance. I mean the new data-driven technologies that enabled responsible governments to track the infected, contact them, and quarantine them early. These technologies have been the target of much criticism in recent years. Now, when they are helping us save lives, they deserve our praise.

South Korea’s achievement is truly impressive. As of March 17, the country has had 8,320 cases and 81 deaths, despite an early bad start. Contrast this with Italy, which at the same time reports 27,980 cases and 2,158 deaths.

Technology’s contribution to pandemic management goes beyond tracking and quarantines. As the US and countries in Europe move toward near-complete lockdown, with potentially disastrous consequences for the world economy, technology offers a glimmer of hope.

Many firms, especially in tech, have closed their offices, mandated that employees telecommute, and provided them with computing and video technology to work remotely. Not only does this keep an important part of the economy going, but it also has had unintended positive consequences. Vehicle congestion, for example, has vanished. The hours harried commuters previously lost in traffic can now be dedicated to work and family. Corporate travel is disappearing, and video conferences are the new norm, with associated reductions in airplane pollution and huge savings in time.

Likewise, educators at nearly every level are scrambling to find online alternatives to in-classroom instruction. Whereas in earlier times, school closings would have implied loss of instruction time, technology is allowing students to continue learning. And the current crisis will advance that process, as a relatively modest group of early adopters in producing online courses is joined by whole universities that have been forced to move to the web.

Obviously, there are challenges to adapting a curriculum intended to be taught in person to the online setting. But with entire faculties experimenting, we are certain to see innovation and rapid improvement in the effectiveness of distance learning. Once students finally return to the classroom, we should continue to leverage these innovations, not only in the developed world, where necessity has forced our hand, but also in developing countries hungry for cost-effective education.

In the retail sector, digital platforms can fill the gap when supermarket shelves empty or self-quarantine makes in-person shopping impossible. And film and music streaming, video chats, and social media have offered avenues to reduce isolation, stay connected, and preserve mental health while locked down.

In these and other ways, the pandemic is accelerating existing technological trends and revealing important benefits, which we should embrace, both now and after the crisis abates. But when normalcy returns, we are also likely to confront once again some tough questions about technological innovation.

The COVID-19 crisis has revived the tension between privacy and effective targeting. In recent years, we often encountered this debate with respect to major tech platforms using granular information about users to deliver micro-targeted news and advertising. But the same kinds of technology have been used to identify those infected by or most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Of course, the tension between privacy and health outcomes is not new: the desire to protect individual histories prevents medical researchers and clinicians from mining the full set of health data to achieve better outcomes. COVID-19 reminds us that we may want to think carefully about the relative benefits of data sharing, as they may sometimes dominate the value of preserving privacy.

Absent intervention, technological trends will inevitably generate winners and losers. Brick-and-mortar stores that were already losing market share to digital platforms are likely to be decimated wherever self-quarantine and mandatory lockdowns are in effect. And though increased telecommuting, reduced business travel, and distance learning will increase productivity for some, they are significantly disrupting the livelihoods of others, and that disruption will accelerate in the next few months.

So, more than ever, it will be imperative to provide support and adjustment assistance to individuals, firms, or entire communities hit by the crisis. But we should resist the urge to resume our relentless, if fashionable, tech bashing. If there is a silver lining in the current crisis, it is the realization that knowledge – primarily math, science, and technology in this case – is our best weapon.

Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg, a former World Bank Group chief economist and editor-in-chief of the American Economic Review, is Professor of Economics at Yale University.. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020, published here with permission.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


Korea - unlike the NZ she'll be right approach. "Before there were any cases of novel coronavirus confirmed in South Korea, one of the country's biotech firms had begun preparing to make testing kits to identify the disease.
...Fast forward two months, and South Korea is among the world's worst affected countries, with more than 7,800 people infected, and more than 60 deaths.

But one reason why South Korea might have a higher number of infections than other countries is its aggressive approach to testing.

Im not qualified to say which county's approach to containing the virus is better - other than using the number of cases and deaths as metrics and in this case Sth Korea is well ahead of Italy.

Italy has a population of 60.5M with 22.75% of people over 65 - so around 13.75M
Sth Korea has a population of 51.3M with with 14.42% of people over 65 - so around 5M

Italy has about 8.7M more people over 65 and as we know these people are more susceptible to dying from this virus.

So while to Sth Korean efforts are to be commended, population age distribution is working against Italy.

Is it possible to access age demographic information on New Zealand population centres? I'm thinking some areas, like rural towns and areas popular with retirees could be more heavily impacted.

On the other hand very remote and isolated areas where people have little human contact day to day may well escape entirely.

Surely as much testing as practical would be best? Especially for health workers. WHO did state "test, test, test".

Hers a bit more data.
8 more cases detected in NZ.

That's concerning given there were only 20 tests 2 days ago according to red radio.

Stupidity is this...Do not copy this is infectious.....Ye Gods.

SK might place 7th in the Math rankings, but obviously still some pretty dumb people there also.

Silent unrecognised living hero, is as much equal to the dead one. Their deeds counts nothing, for themselves. but their result is always harnessed/cherished by those.. celebrating a purchase of a new properties worldwide. The real beneficiary, which in turn most of the time ended up as ruling elite of each Nations, a special echelon. To repeat the rinse cycle, to enjoy the clean clothes whilst supported by the rest of world populations, that try to clean their clothes using the remaining by product of dirty water. Always will be like that.

Your access to our unique content is free - always has been. But ad revenues are under pressure so we need your direct support.

Become a supporter

Thanks, I'm already a supporter.