Event ReportsPublished on Jul 03, 2020
Technology, Governance Innovation and the Pandemic: Discussing Responses from South Asia and Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an overwhelming human as well as economic cost. The global outbreak of the novel coronavirus has exposed the fragility of healthcare systems, the inefficiency of social protections frameworks, and lack of economic resilience.

The year 2020 was primed to be the ‘decade of action’ to accelerate our momentum towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Unfortunately, the pandemic has hit at a time when countries were making appreciable progress in meeting the SDGs.

But, as history has shown time and again, a crisis often brings with it opportunities for innovation and change. For instance, the 1918 influenza pandemic brought with it a revolution in telecommunications, with the wide acceptance and usage of telephones, so that people could keep in touch with loved ones during enforced isolation and social distancing. In fact, the numbers of telephone users increased so dramatically that there were not enough telephone operators to transfer calls from the caller to the recipient. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different. It has accelerated the growth of technology and innovation—from the use of apps to slow the spread of the virus to videoconferencing platforms that have enabled ‘work from home’ setups almost overnight.

With the COVID-19 crisis reshaping economies and public policy worldwide, it is crucial that we use this moment to lay the foundations for a strong, sustained and socially inclusive response through international cooperation, technological advancement and governance innovation, without de-linking from the SDGs.

In the past few years, India has witnessed strategic sustainable growth and development. It has emerged as a global actor in shaping narratives, policies and institutions in the global governance system. To ensure lasting growth, development cooperation through partnerships with other nations has been an integral part of India’s development agenda.

To this end, the Observer Research Foundation’s Lighthouse Project aims to build transnational partnerships and strengthen multi-stakeholder responses amongst African, South and South-east Asian countries, which could assist in achieving the ‘Sustainable Development Agenda 2030.’ As a first step towards realizing this vision and goal, the inaugural session of the Lighthouse Project was hosted on June 25th 2020 by ORF, in partnership with NITI Aayog. The virtual discussion focused on the deployment of technology solutions and governance innovations to support the most vulnerable, not only in their response to the pandemic, but also in the years to come.

Tech Solutions and Challenges

During the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, it took more than a year to sequence the genome of the virus. However, the genome sequence of COVID-19 was available in less than a month after the first reported case. The exponential advancement in technology—with the wealth of data it offers—has allowed health officials to have access to vital information, which is critical during a crisis. For instance, the importance of basic hygiene measures like the use of alcohol-based sanitisers and washing hands with soap was conveyed rapidly in the early phases of the pandemic. This would not have been possible without widespread use of information and communications technology (ICT). Technological innovation holds the key in identifying barriers and providing efficient solutions for developmental challenges at a local, national and global level.

Amitabh Kant, Chief Executive officer of NITI Aayog, in his keynote address rightly said, “A pandemic like COVID-19 with its global reach, must be tackled by three interconnected levers—of frontline healthcare workers, infrastructure and medical facilities, and technology.”

The enforcement of lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus has led to the shutting down of economies, industries, educational institutes, and medical facilities alike. Amidst the lockdowns, there was a surge of indigenous innovation across the world to fill the inherent gaps in the system. It has proven to be a strong catalyst towards driving change, particularly in India, where there was a growth in healthcare innovation.

Currently, the three main areas wherein digital technology has provided support to fight the contagion are—information and risk management; modeling and predicting the spread of the disease; and contact tracing. The lockdown also saw increased use of tele-medicine, to ensure delivery of health care while also promoting social distancing. COVID-19 has directly led to a simplification of and reduction in the lengthy regulatory processes associated with new technologies and innovations, thereby, promoting the deployment of tech in various sectors. India’s ‘Swasth’, for instance, is an example of a private sector-led government-enabled app. They have partnered with more than a hundred leading private hospitals, diagnostic start-ups, and e-commerce firms. Along with the assistance of more than 200 certified and trained doctors, Swasth aims to digitally provide health care products and services to Indian citizens. Likewise, Bangladesh’s repurposed national helpline ‘Triple-3’ works as a self-reporting tool to detect COVID-19 symptoms amongst the population, specifically those with limited internet connectivity.

Tech innovation has improved the prognosis, diagnosis and treatment of people affected by infectious disease; however, the privacy concerns around the use of data generated through these innovations must be addressed. Real-time integration of data for pandemic surveillance, to limit the spread of infectious diseases in the future, is essential. A major aspect of utilising data and technology is the ethical and privacy framework, which must be strengthened and made more transparent. Tech innovations should aim to respond to and address the needs of those at the bottom of the pyramid. As we move forward, is it crucial that tech innovations receive the support of governments, in order to reach the most vulnerable sections of society like the poor, the elderly, and migrant workers.

Governance Innovations and Processes

Governance is the key to effective implementation and coordination of public, private, NGO and civil society effort. The pandemic has highlighted the existing structural problems that come with globalisation, the gaps in the global health system, and the persisting socioeconomic inequality.

For developing nations, the COVID-19 pandemic has questioned the state’s capacity to deliver basic needs such as food security, availability of and access to clean water, and access to affordable health care. Considering the fast mutating virus, solutions through rapid innovation and revolutionary technologies are pivotal in responding to the crisis quickly and efficiently. Government intervention—by supporting innovation through short-term ease of regulatory frameworks, providing single window clearances for permissions, and looking at potential partnerships with other countries—is the need of the hour. COVID-19 has given rise to multiple initiatives to support the medical, economic, financial and social systems in developing countries. The data and learnings generated from these initiatives can be used as a valuable repository for knowledge and information sharing. Nations facing similar challenges can use this repository as a ‘public good’, which can be amended and replicated based on the unique circumstances and needs of each country.

For instance, Ghana’s Centre for Ghana Health Emergency<1> aims to employ efficient contact tracing and provide a platform for timely and proper collection and analysis of data. This has helped establish a useful database for combatting COVID-19 by supporting the existing health infrastructure and providing relevant information to trained health personnel. Additionally, the Ghana Innovation & Research Center<2> plays a critical role in coordinating efforts of different sectors to develop transparent synergies. Nigeria’s Post-Covid Sustainability Programme<3> focuses on supporting the Nigerian economy in a sustainable way, while also containing the pandemic. The Nigerian government has produced a revised policy framework, along with an incentive-based financial support programme, that will help Nigeria achieve the SDGs by 2030, if implemented effectively.

Similarly, India employed the timely use of local government and community-based platforms such as ‘Ashas in an attempt to mitigate COVID-19 at the grassroots level. These innovative governance mechanisms have provided multiple benefits ranging from crisis communication to ensuring entitlements and relief is provided to those who need it the most.

Presently, the crisis has put forth the need for quick short-term solutions to aid those who are directly and indirectly suffering the consequences of the pandemic. As we move forward, we must look into building long-term equitable and green solutions as well as solution-sharing frameworks to ensure collective development, where nobody is left behind.

International Partnerships and Bridges

COVID-19 has seen the implementation of innovative tech-based solutions and robust policies, but collaboration amongst global partners has not reached desired levels. One of the gaps in pandemic preparedness for COVID-19 has been the lack of knowledge sharing amongst international partners. There cannot be a singular approach towards combatting an infectious disease that has infected ~10 million people. The response to a global crisis requires solidarity and collaboration not only at the regional level but at the global level. Transparency in data and solution sharing is imperative to tackle public health emergencies.

In this regard, COVID-19 can be a catalyst in strengthening projects such as the e-VBAB. The project aims to create a digital bridge of innovation and development through delivery of quality tele-education and tele-medicine facilities by linking Indian schools, institutions and hospitals with those in Africa.

Secondly, India’s contact tracing and syndromic mapping app, Aarogya Setu, is an example of a successful public-private digital partnership led by the government. Conceptualized and developed by NITI Aayog in the short of three weeks, the app has seen more than 135 million adoptions since its launch. With a dedicated team of 100 doctors, the app has been providing medical advice to those who have been assessed as high risk. Of the 150,000 self-diagnosed (through the app) high-risk people, more than 38,000 have tested positive. A partnership that can work towards replicating and making a unique app such as Aarogya Setu in African and other South Asian countries could help in reducing the burden on health systems by identifying high risk cases remotely, consequently ensuring the availability of hospital beds for higher risk cases.

The COVID-19 outbreak has provided insights into how tech and governance innovation can better equip the world to contain the spread of infectious diseases. This pandemic will leave behind a plethora of innovations, a credible set of solutions and potentially build bridges between diverse groups to work together towards building a better tomorrow. Innovative solutions, policies, and global collaboration are the cornerstones to create a world that can be better prepared to meet the challenges posed by any future public health emergency.

The first event was able to accomplish its twin tasks of building an experiential bridge and spurring partnerships for development objectives. Kate Hampton, CEO of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, UK, has already connected with Patricia Appiagyei (Ghana) and Peter C. Ekweozoh (Nigeria). A bridge has also been set up between India and the UK government for COP-26 by Ashok Malik (India).  ORF and Nisha Holla (India) are convening a special meeting with a women’s network in Africa to have smaller and more focused conversations on gender, grassroots innovation and technology.


  1. Amandeep Gill, Director, Global Health Centre project, International Digital Health & AI Research Collaborative (I-DAIR)
  2. Amitabh Kant, Chief Executive Officer, NITI Aayog
  3. Anir Chowdhury, Policy Advisor, a2i, Bangladesh
  4. Ashok Malik, Policy Advisor, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India
  5. Kate Hampton, Chief Executive Officer, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation
  6. Nisha Holla, Technology Fellow, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP)
  7. Patricia Appiagyei, Deputy Minister — Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, Ghana
  8. Peter C. Ekweozoh, Director, Environmental Sciences and Technology, Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, Nigeria
  9. Samir Saran, President, Observer Research Foundation
  10. Sandhya Venkateswaran, Deputy Director at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

This report has been written by Kriti Kapur, Junior Fellow, ORF and Anushka Shah, Research Assistant, ORF 

<1> Patricia Appiagyei, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, Ghana

<2> Patricia Appiagyei, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, Ghana

<3> Peter C. Ekweozoh, Director, Environmental Sciences and Technology, Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, Nigeria

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