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The Individual vs. the Collective amidst COVID-19

Eline N. Lincklaen Arriens

Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not represent the views of the Support Centre for Data Sharing or the European Commission.


Since COVID-19 has turned into a pandemic, countries around the world have been utilising and sharing data to gain insights into the spread of the virus and to help leaders curb and flatten its spread. How, and with what measures and guidelines, they are using to achieve this differs.

This is part two of a two-part series. The first article focused on Western Individualism vs. Eastern Collectivism, how these different mentalities impact COVID-19 responses at a broader level and the impact they have on a society’s notion of privacy. This piece will deep dive into examples of national responses around data sharing during the COVID-19 pandemic from a Western and Eastern perspective. Before proceeding, please be aware that I am generalising and am only giving examples of two countries that I have personal knowledge and experience, and contacts, in. The Netherlands does not represent all countries in the West nor China for all of the East.

National responses

As you have most likely seen in the news, countries around the world are looking towards technological solutions to combat COVID-19. Arguably the most popular solution, or at least one of the most heavily discussed possibilities, is through an application.1 The discussions, creation and implementation of this application have differed in what can be distinguished as the “West” and the “East”.2 To highlight how the Western and Eastern perspective differs in terms of privacy and data sharing to combat COVID-19, I deep dive into two examples from the Individual and Collective mentalities: the Netherlands and China.

The Netherlands

An example of a Western (individualistic) perspective is the Netherlands. In April 2020, the Dutch government investigated launching a mobile application to track the spread of COVID-19 in the Netherlands. Following this announcement, and before any additional information was given on what the application would entail, there was an onslaught of debates on privacy concerns over the mobile application.3

One example is a debate between several experts on a well-known satire show in the Netherlands, Zondag met Lubach.4 In the conversation, there was a consensus that everyone wants to be safe and healthy and to one day be able to go outside again and that a COVID-19 tracking application could help in achieving this. What was extensively discussed were the conditions that the application needed to fulfil to be accepted in, and by, Dutch society. These conditions include that the application needs to be temporary, transparent, completely anonymous, voluntary and user friendly. If these conditions were not met, they discussed that it was unlikely Dutch residents would download and use the application due to reservations on how their data will be processed, stored and used.

To create the application itself, the Dutch government organisation an ‘appathon’ and selected 7 out of 700 applications to join the appathon.5 These applications were selected after being tested by a panel of over 60 experts from the field of epidemiology, health care, privacy, information security and Information & Technology. In the appathon, the performance of the selected applications were extensively tested. However, they had heavy criticism from digital rights organisations and the Dutch Data Protection Authority (DPA). In a report published on 20 April,6 the DPA highlighted the 7 applications and their impact on privacy and concluded that they did not have enough information to properly review the application and its impact on the privacy of individuals.7 Following the criticism, Dutch Vice Prime Minister De Jonge, who was responsible for selecting the application, concluded that none of the 7 applications were good enough in terms of ensuring privacy and security. The last update is that developers would start testing for a COVID-19 tracing application on June 2020 that was still mindful of security.8  


From an Eastern (collective) perspective, China has been praised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for setting a “new standard” for the COVID-19 outbreak by creating and using applications to track the virus’s movement.9 China’s ‘success’ with these applications is partially because they don’t have specific laws or regulations yet that protect the process, storage and use of personal data.10

When China declared a citywide quarantine to isolate the 11 million residents in Wuhan for COVID-19, they originally enforced an old-fashioned barricade.11 To date, this was the largest lockdown in human history. The lockdown started lifting on 8 April with an introduction of newer methods to isolate residents to prevent a further spread of the virus. Now, there are checkpoints throughout the city where police and security guards can demand that anyone seeking to enter and leave an area present a QR code on their mobile phones that rates the user’s risk of catching, and spreading, COVID-19. Residents whose QR codes show green codes are granted unrestricted movement, those with a yellow code are required to stay in quarantine for seven days and those with red are placed in lockdown for fourteen days.

This QR code was created by local governments through algorithms. This was implemented in Wuhan and in other cities across China on applications hosted by China’s largest tech companies: Alibaba Group, Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Baidu Inc. For residents to receive a rating, all users must download the application embedded into one of the tech giants’ nationwide payment, messaging or search engine platforms. Though the application works differently in the varying cities and provinces, they all require that users register with their basic information. This includes their name, national identity card number, their phone number and home address. Following questions in the user’s registration are more invasive. These questions inquire about the user’s health status, their travel history and for them to identify any close contacts that have been diagnosed with the virus. All residents must complete the questions to register for the applications otherwise they will not be permitted to move within their city or province.

Though there is no official (or even informal) survey on how many people are happy to cooperate with this measure, an article in the Japan Times state that many Chinese people say they are happy to cooperate for the greater good and that human life is more important than divulging what their movements are.12  

Going forward

As countries begin to recover and regroup after the first wave of COVID-19, they are now looking to mitigate the spread, and possibly the occurrence of a second wave. How they decide to do this, whether by implementing stricter regulations, maintaining restrictions or sharing knowledge, for example, will have long-term effects on their country and across the world. No one knows what the right way forward is and there is no objectively wrong approach to how nations are dealing with the pandemic. We can all have our opinions on what we think decision-makers and leaders should do; however, we also do not have all the data to make an informed decision ourselves and cannot know what the long-term impact of our choice would be. Furthermore, it is also likely that not everyone would agree with the decision and recommended actions we’d put forward. Our notion of what we believe is best for us and others is influenced by our own perceptions, values and the cultural upbringing that we grew up in. What we can do is stay united and support one another during the pandemic and to respect the decisions others are making, even if we don’t agree.


Stay up to date on the latest figures of COVID-19 as countries across the world act to contain the pandemic. In the meantime, stay safe and healthy and explore our teams work around data sharing!