How governments are communicating online during the COVID-19 crisis

Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto prepares his thumbs during his registration to the digital identification system locally known as Huduma Number in Nairobi, Kenya April 9, 2019. Picture taken April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi - RC23RE9X11WP

Governments are shifting services online as COVID-19 spreads around the world. Image: REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi

Emma Charlton
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  • Governments are shifting to digital amid the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Still more than 40% of countries had no information about COVID-19 on their websites at the end of March.
  • Technology can be key to improving resilience to disasters, the United Nations says, but also creates vulnerabilities and risks around data privacy.

Getting information and vital services to citizens digitally has never been more important than during the COVID-19 pandemic, but UN research shows there are significant differences in how successful countries have been in communicating with their citizens.

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While many governments already provide information and services on national portals, mobile apps, or through social media, many are now finding they need to accelerate initiatives to move online, amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Around 86% of the 193 United Nations member states included information and guidance about COVID-19 on their government websites by 8 April, according to a UN review. However, the analysis showed that more than 40% of countries did not provide any information at the end of March.


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“It is vital for governments to provide accurate, useful and up-to-date information to people, particularly during times of crisis,” says the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Economic Analysis (UN DESA). “Reliable information from governments helps people make informed decisions about their daily routines, build public trust, as well as enables public authorities to act decisively to flatten the curve.”


A creative approach

Technology can offer many solutions in times of social distancing, including virtual doctors and access to information regarding the latest policies and economic and social support. The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing governments to be more creative in how they respond to their citizens’ needs. The UN stressed that while harnessing tech is beneficial overall, countries should be mindful of the risk of misuse, data privacy concerns, and ensuring citizens without internet access are not left behind.

Percentage of government portals with COVID-19 information
A growing number of countries are sharing vital information. Image: UN DESA

The report says: “Navigating these challenging times requires governments to adopt an open government approach and to use digital communication channels to provide reliable information. E-participation platforms can represent useful tools to engage with vulnerable groups online and establish digital initiatives to collectively brainstorm for policy ideas to critical social and economic challenges.”


Legacy for the future

The writers suggested pathways for success that will leave a strong legacy for the future, including: working harder to engage people; striking effective public-private partnerships, by sharing technologies, expertise and tools; and accelerating the adoption of cutting-edge technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

“In the long-term, governments need to accelerate the implementation of innovative digital technologies such as AI-powered technology, blockchain, and drones. Investments in these technologies can support the future resilience of the health economy and public services delivery.”

The UN said digital technologies can also be key to improving resilience to disasters and other shocks, in a separate review of e-governments.

Digital Government Policy Response to COVID-19
Image: UN DESA

Some countries are already ahead of the curve. For example, in Estonia, 99% of government services are already online after the implementation of e-Estonia. Their government has been working towards this point for many years and in 2000 declared internet access to be a human right.


Digital dangers

The report warned that a “wave of fake news and viral hoaxes” threatens public trust in technology and jeopardises genuine government services. “Thousands of COVID-19 scam and malware sites have emerged on a daily basis, such as the sale of counterfeit surgical masks, fake self-testing kits and so on. In response, some governments have launched response units or campaigns to coordinate the fight against online misinformation about COVID-19.”

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