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Let’s be real, we’re not going back to normal

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.

Following the shock of COVID-19, our sense and experience of normality will never be the same again, especially in regard to data sharing. Let’s take a step back before we dive into the reality behind this title and how it relates to data sharing.

Society under COVID-19

Our generation is in a wholly unique situation due to the COVID-19 medical alert.1 As of Tuesday 31 March 2020, approximately a quarter of all the countries in the world are experiencing either a full-blown lock-down or, at the minimum, are being highly encouraged to self-isolate to prevent the virus from spreading.2 What this means for us is standing at least 1,5 metres apart from the nearest person (otherwise known as social distancing)3, only going outside to walk your dog or to jog / run (whichever tickles your fancy), and to buy only absolute necessities like food at the supermarket.

What I just described is only the social situation. I haven’t touched on the current economic impact; let alone the long-term repercussions this medical alert will cause. For those actively following the news and listening to podcasts on the pandemic, there is a near consensus from economists and politicians that there will be a long-term impact across the board. The only questions that are up for debate are (1) the severity of the impact on society and the economy and (2) how long any of it will last. These topics and how they relate to data sharing will be delved into further in later opinion pieces. COVID-19 is a massive topic and will dominate the media for weeks and months to come, and I expect we’ll still be talking about it this time next year. As such, there will be a lot of facets around it to explore – socially, economically, and politically – that link to data and data sharing.

We’re not going back to normal

Now, getting back into the title: we’re not going back to normal. Whatever will constitute as normal to you after this medical alert is lifted will not be what constituted as normal for you before it.

To stop COVID-19 from spreading, we are radically changing almost everything we do: how we work, exercise, socialise, shop, educate our kids, take care of family members (wherever they may be), and manage our health. All these things are being moved online. For some of these things, we can go back to some semblance of normalcy when the medical alert is lifted and the economy starts to pick up again, such as working from the office or meeting with our friends for coffee or a meal. However, some things (most likely in all these aspects) will be permanently changed.

Sharing data to mitigate COVID-19

One aspect that will forever be changed due to COVID-19 is data sharing. More specifically, how data is being shared and the type of data that will be shared. Broadly speaking, our experience during this medical alert will impact data sharing in general, not just in how we could use it to mitigate the next pandemic. Data sharing in healthcare will be explored further in another opinion piece.

For those avidly following the news on COVID-19, you may have caught a few reporters, experts (such as economists and representatives from the healthcare industry) and politicians discussing data sharing news and initiatives to combat the spread of COVID-19 and to support healthcare services and the economy. Two examples of data sharing initiatives are:

  1. Data sharing on COVID-19 led by the World Health Organisation (WHO).4 Here, partners in the initiative called “solidarity trial” aim to allow nations across the world to share information on COVID-19 “experimental” therapies and research.5
  2. Mobile phone industries sharing data to counter COVID-19.6 At the end of March 2020, mobile phone industries were exploring creating a global data-sharing system that can track users around the world to monitor and map who has COVID-19 and prevent it from spreading further.

These types of data sharing activities will not be limited to organisations such as the WHO and mobile industries, nor will it stop there. Other institutions are already actively sharing data with one another to map and curb the spread of the pandemic at a regional, national, and global level. It is unlikely that they will stop sharing data with one another once the medical alert passes. My prediction is that they will continue to share data to:

  1. Monitor and contain the spread of COVID-19 globally to prevent another outbreak;
  2. Stimulate the economy by, for example, helping people find jobs; and
  3. Continue tracking and monitor other infectious diseases that are a risk of becoming a pandemic. 

When the COVID-19 medical alert lifts, organisations will still be sharing data with one another to create services and facilitate knowledge sharing. This was true before the pandemic and is unlikely to change once it passes.  Sharing information, whether it be health, financial or population data, has had a steroid injection and everyone can see the benefits of what happens when data is quickly pulled together to deal with an emergency. Who’s to say it will stop afterwards? Though it’s comforting to know that personal data and privacy legislation still apply to data sharing during the pandemic,7 there is so much going on and it’s unlikely to stop or falter going forward, with or without our knowledge and (explicit) consent.8

So, I pose the question: What is the new normal for data sharing?

Share your thoughts and opinions and let's discuss it on the SCDS forum!

Data sharing and COVID-19
Image credit:
(C) February 2020, Gerd Altmann