Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Combating COVID-19 using digital technology in APEC region

Ting Yu Lin
PhD Student, International Health Program, Department of Public Health
National Yang-Ming University

In 2020, the global health crisis has adversely affected the well-being and livelihoods of people across the Asia-Pacific region. The outbreak of the COVID-19 has caused over 27 million confirm cases and more than 900,000 death in the world (by the date 12th September, 2020). As the end of the pandemic is still far from reality as well as result to tremendous disruptions on both demand and supply sides of the global value chain (GVC), it is urged for each sector to share their best practices and to focus on substantive topics. The resiliency of health systems and supply chain are in need to be strengthened, also, the role of digital health plays moving forward.

To relieve such global tension accompanied with economic disturb, the first statement on the corona virus was issued by the APEC Health Working Group (HWG) in March, which not only reaffirms the central importance of collaboration at all levels to combat this infectious disease but also commit to working together to bring this epidemic under control as fast as possible. Moreover, the APEC Ministers Responsible for Trade (MRT) has also launched a statement in early May to call out on the collaboration at all levels across the region to accelerate the fight against COVID-19 and commit to work closely to defeat this pandemic with urgency.

Digitalization as the initial step toward combating the COVID-19

From the experiences shared by some economies, it is notable that the impact of digital technologies is especially distinguishable. National policies like monitoring, stockpiling medical resources, diagnosing and telemedicine count on technologies vastly. Since COVID-19 is changing the way we used to live for decades, it is not hard to say that the “new normal” is expected to be much more relied on digital technology. In addition, the importance of a robust digital connectivity to promote economic participation and drive inclusive growth is very much in need. Thus, this can refer that the development of digital health will be more in line with the "people-centric" principle as it impacts the health of every individual and local community.

With the development of digitalisation, the government needs to firstly restate the importance of a robust digital infrastructure and widespread digitization of services, especially for disadvantaged groups such as those who live in rural or mountain areas. This includes both physical infrastructure assets and regulatory regimes that enable society to maximize the benefits of digital connectivity. Correspondingly, given the introduction of digital technologies in the health sector is helpful for increasing efficiency, medical services which also make the medical services become more available and affordable. It is also reasonable to expand the use of interoperable data systems, reduce healthcare expenses, improve the quality and equity of healthcare.

In the digital health sector, there is a wide-ranging space for further exploration which includes issues like mobile health (mHealth), health information technology (IT), telehealth or telemedicine, wearable devices and personalized medicine. Innovations in this field can critically improve quality and access to care. They are a significant driver to shape the future of primary health care and expected to have a profound effect on how health services are delivered and how health systems run. Although the develop stage of each economies varies, more and more investment in the application and R&D of digital health is witnessed in almost every member economy in the region.

First step for regional health cooperation in the digital era during the pandemic

With the development of traveling, we see distance less as a factor in diseases’ transmission; however, with the development of digital technology, a more efficient way to cooperate cross boarder rise. We can therefore argue that regional cooperation is crucial during the pandemic. To response to the MRT statement, APEC economies have committed to exchange health information. Apart from information sharing, exchanging best practices to promote the cooperation in fighting the public health crisis is also essential in the cross broader support. To make this long-lasting, regional cooperation should be sustained and strengthened to ensure resilience and revive regional growth going forward.

With the commitment and consensus APEC economies had already reached, promoting digital inclusion and bridge the digital divide for disadvantaged groups has been APEC’s goal and mission for years. Thus, with governments’ consideration of the strategic approaches in network preparation in promoting cooperation between economies in the digital era is essential. For example, building out visual networks in preparation for similar challenges in the future. However, we can still see that some people live in rural or mountain areas in APEC economies remain unconnected.

As a result, governments should be encouraged to invest more in ICT infrastructure and adopt more supportive policies. Moreover, maintaining existing digital infrastructure is also critical that governments take steps to ensure the resilience of existing infrastructure. 

Digital prevention measures

The use of digital health policies in prevention varies in the region. As we can see that ICT technologies is helpful for tracking record, infographic and websites resources are more accurate in introducing demonstrate policies, statistics, and facts. APEC as a cooperation with members with most diverse cultures, different economies apply measures unlikely the same based on the development of technology status and their culture, which is also benefit to others when exchanging best practices. The exchange of policy experiences between member economies is expected to help us learning from each other and pave the way for further cooperation as the impacts of the pandemic is still felt. Therefore, the digital health gap and regulatory diversities among APEC economies should be discussed before any solution suggested.

Applications like telemedicine, AI-enabled drug screening and CT diagnostics provide significant support in our ongoing fight against the virus. Some economies accelerate the process for launching telemedicine during this public health challenge while some use basic technology, such as drone, for keeping people in a social distance. These are seeing increasingly broader use on a national and regional scale.

Considering strict social distancing requirements, remote healthcare, telemedicine, online course and online shopping have become a must for the proper functioning of society. None of this would be possible without strong and readily available digital connectivity. We can thus argue that investment in digital fields is the most effective way to support economic growth.

The corona virus brings opportunities to reimagine what is possible and desirable for our future in promoting public health. Varying digital health technologies are currently being designed to address the crisis and emergencies with different social-economic conditions. The efficiency of digital tools/measures is what APEC economies have taken for combating the pandemic as priority.


lStatement on COVID-19, APEC Ministers Responsible for Trade 5 May, 2020

lAPEC Health Working Group Statement on COVID-19, the APEC Health Working Group, 23 March, 2020

lAPEC in the Epicentre of COVID-19, APEC Secretariat, APEC Policy Support Unit, April 2020

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