There’s No App to Beat Covid in Latin America

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Whether it’s standing up to corporate tobacco, pioneering the rainbow agenda or branding Big Marijuana, Uruguay’s public-policy chutzpah stands out in the Americas. So it was little surprise when this nation of 3.4 million joined the world’s pacesetters in vaccine rollout. Some 28 of every 100 Uruguayans have had at least one anti-Covid-19 shot, the best record in the continent after Chile’s, and nearly triple the jabs per capita of its richer neighbors Brazil and Argentina.

Uruguay’s initiatives — last year’s widely praised contact tracing app and a more recent vaccine booking tool — were hailed as vital signs of a maturing body politic, in which judicious use of information technology can expedite solutions to 21st-century challenges. As goes tiny Uruguay, why not the rest of Latin America, where societies battling the worst health emergency on record sorely need smart tools to monitor contagion, model policy response, whisk relief to the afflicted and revive devastated economies?

Hold that thought.

A year into the pandemic, Uruguay’s prognosis is murkier. Weary of virus vigilance and with dangerous new variants circulating, Uruguayans are once again in harm’s way: The infection curve has soared this year; earlier this month, it posted the world’s highest rate of infections per million. The total death toll of more than 1,600 is low for Latin America, the epicenter of the pandemic, but clearly a setback for a nation that had prided itself as the New Zealand of the Americas, an exemplar of civic sensibility and science-based public-health management.

Don’t blame the apps. Speeding up vaccination is the best way to preempt the virus from spreading and mutating into more wily variants. The innovative booking platform, developed in just four days by the Montevideo data entrepreneur GeneXus, which boasts 1.5 million users, has done just that, organizing online queues as anxious vaccine seekers scramble for appointments. “Uruguay is traversing the worst moment of the pandemic,” GeneXus CEO Nicolas Jodal told me. “People are in panic and we knew we needed to innovate to handle the flood of requests and avoid gridlock.” Last year, the company’s pioneering contact tracing phone app was instrumental in containing the early outbreak.

But Uruguay’s struggles also underline the need for Latin America not just to hack the pandemic but also to rethink the underlying political and social conditions that blunt even the sharpest tech tools and make the outbreak measurably worse.

Tech wizardry has its limits in a region disproportionately burdened by the oldest scourges — gaping income inequality and the vast informal economy where millions live hand to mouth — and newer ones, such as the digital divide and political tribalism, which keep citizens divided and in the dark. “Digital tools don’t operate in a vacuum,” said Fabrizio Scrollini, executive director of the Latin American Open Data Initiative. “They operate within human systems that were actually working before, sometimes well, sometimes badly. With denialism on the rise, and some governments rejecting data and science-based policies, these tools becomes critical. Not to say that data doesn’t have problems, but we can use data to enhance the conversation.”

In Asia, digital technology was a solution waiting for a problem. Artificial intelligence permeates everyday gadgets and systems; the smartphone is as indispensable as an opposable thumb. Denmark and Israel leveraged virtual citizen identification to deploy and administer vaccines quickly, while the World Health Organization is betting on digital technology to challenge vaccine skepticism and boost trust in health systems.

Latin America has embraced these technologies with varying levels of sophistication. At least 28 countries, including regional vaccine leader Chile, have deployed web-based apps during the pandemic, delivering everything from statistics on infection rates to GPS data for monitoring mobility.

Bytes and bits can help, yet they are undermined by low-tech maladies, not least the multitudes on the far side of the digital divide. Elites with smartphones and broadband (and soon enough 5G networks) grouse about cabin fever and Zoom ennui. Yet at least half the region’s population is left offline or with faulty connectivity and exposed to pathogens that flourish in the crowded informal economy.

Democratizing connectivity is only part of the challenge. The pandemic has shown that the heralded boom in home office technology is a revolution for the privileged. Just 25% of workers in Latin America’s major economies are able to do their jobs remotely, compared with 30% to 50% in emerging Asia and Europe, the International Monetary Fund found. Failing to educate workers for the information economy is to let them languish in high-contact, street-facing jobs, sitting ducks for the next pandemic.

One collateral advantage of the health crisis is that in order to distribute emergency aid to the neediest citizens, governments had to find them. That touched off a campaign across the hemisphere to identify and sign up millions of hitherto “invisible” workers who worked off-book and so were not part of official cash transfer program registries. The universal digitalizing of national identity systems must be a priority of the post-pandemic agenda.

So must the promotion of internet literacy. While many of the new poor owned mobile phones, most struggled with unreliable web access or little online experience, which made receiving their electronic cash transfers a challenge. That demographic soon became a fertile crescent for cyber predators, who specialized in poaching identities, phishing for online cash or interceding as digital middlemen for a cut of the aid payout. No sooner had the Brazilian government posted its online signup for Covid aid last year than the Central Bank flagged 693 clandestine websites designed to intercept emergency cash online, Claudio Lucena, associate scholar for the Getulio Vargas Foundation’s CyberBRICS Project, told me.

None of this is to disparage technical innovation. No nation can hope to beat a pandemic, power public-health systems, help the most vulnerable, and jump-start recovery without tapping the best information technology.

“There’s no question data science is crucial to manage the health crisis,” said Lucena. “We can’t expect to combat a 21st-century pandemic with the same methods used to fight the Spanish flu. What’s missing is to define what we want to do with the tools and where to use them.”

Sadly, no app can substitute for the kind of leadership and acumen needed to achieve that goal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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