Committed to connecting the world

SDG

Pandemic preparedness: Tech for COVID-19 and future outbreaks

​​​​​​​​​​​​ ​​Pandemic

Overview

CHALLENGES


The current COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic disruption threaten decades of development gains, throwing progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) off-track.

Demand for broadband communication services has soared since the start of the pandemic, with some operators experiencing as much as a 60 per cent increase in Internet traffic compared to before the crisis. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, global mobile data traffic per user reached more than 6 gigabytes per month for all types of devices.

Despite a steady decline over recent years, the cost of connecting remains high in developing countries. Moreover, COVID-19 has pushed nearly 100 million more people around the world below the poverty line, a historically unprecedented increase in global poverty.

Access to electricity is critical to connectivity. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted years of steady progress towards universal electricity access, leaving 759 million people (mostly in Africa and Asia) still living without electricity.

At the height of national lockdowns due to COVID-19, up to 1.6 billion children around the world were affected by school closures, causing the largest mass disruption of education in modern history. A joint ITU-UNICEF report notes that two thirds of the world's school-age children have no Internet access at home.

OPPORTUNITIES


Some 4.1 billion people (or 54 per cent of the world's population) were using the Internet regularly by 2019. Since then, the number of users has surged by 800 million to reach an estimated 4.9 billion people, or 63 per cent of the global population, at the end of 2021.

According to the World Bank and the Climate Investment Funds, countries that have integrated their responses to COVID-19 and the climate crisis have been able to find lower-carbon, more climate-resilient solutions that are beneficial not just to health systems but also the environment.

Many countries have deployed innovative digital health solutions, from contact tracing applications to telemedicine, to combat COVID‑19.

The WHO Health Alert service from the World Health Organization (WHO) has brought COVID-19 facts to billions of people via dedicated messaging services, using AI features to provide users with a better interactive experience.

As the pandemic continues to unfold worldwide, Giga, the global ITU-UNICEF initiative to connect every school to the Internet, has mapped over 1 million schools across 41 countries and connected more than 3,000 of them, ensuring access to the Internet for over 1 million students and teachers.

Cloud-based solutions have helped in the shift to remote education and medical consultations.

Robust, resilient, secure digital infrastructure – accessible worldwide – will continue to be critical in pandemics, epidemics, and any kind of disaster.

COOPERATION TO BOOST GLOBAL RESILIENCE: ITU CONTRIBUTIONS


ITU – as the UN specialized agency for ICTs – continues to mobilize its global public-private membership and the tech community at large around key initiatives, including those aimed at COVID-19 response, sustainable development, and building back better post-pandemic. ITU's work highlights the need for all countries and regions to harness the full potential of ICTs, new and emerging tech and the associated digital transformation to cope with and recover from such crises.

Timely response and coordination

Right at the start of the pandemic, ITU launched the Global Network Resiliency Platform (REG4COVID), addressing the unprecedented stress put on telecommunication networks as more countries, companies, and individuals turned to digital technologies amid COVID-19. The platform helps policy makers, regulators, and industry players ensure that networks are kept resilient and telecoms services are available, as far as possible, to everyone.

In special emergency session in April 2020, the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development adopted an Agenda for Action outlining immediate measures that governments, industry, the international community and civil society could take to shore-up digital networks, strengthen capacity at critical connectivity points like hospitals and transport hubs, and boost digital access and inclusivity, with the aim of strengthening collective response to the COVID-19 crisis.

ITU joined the World Bank, GSMA and the World Economic Forum in setting in motion concrete and immediate actions ranging from promoting network resilience to ensuring access and affordability of digital services, aiming to help governments, the private sector, and every citizen cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Digital Development Joint Action Plan and Call for Action issued in April 2020 sought to leverage digital technologies and infrastructure to maximum effect during the pandemic.

A series of webinars in April and May 2020 on “Digital Cooperation during COVID-19 and beyond" highlighted ways to secure safe, stable, affordable, and inclusive connectivity. The series – organized by ITU in cooperation with the Office of the UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Digital Cooperation – helped identify possible solutions and common approaches and strategies from different nations and stakeholders.

Cooperation to expand connectivity

ITU and WHO, with support from UNICEF, have worked with telecommunication companies since the start of the pandemic to text people directly on their mobile phones with vital health messaging to help protect them from COVID-19, reaching all those who are not able to connect to the Internet for information.[A1] [MN2] 

The Partner2Connect Digital Coalition, launched by ITU in September 2021 with support from the Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Technology, strives to foster meaningful connectivity and digital transformation in the world's hardest-to-connect countries, in line with the UN Secretary General's Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.

Also in the wake of COVID-19, ITU's Connect2Recover initiative aims to reinforce the digital infrastructure of developing countries and promote better uses of digital technologies, such as teleworking, e-commerce, remote learning and telemedicine, to support COVID-19 recovery, improve readiness for the “new normal", and help prepare for future pandemics.

Promoting AI for health

An AI for Good webinar series, drawing on expertise across the AI community, has delved into promising use cases for AI in healthcare and other areas in the face of COVID-19 and other global challenges.

AI can strengthen outbreak prediction and symptom classification. These are the subject of dedicated workstreams within the ITU-WHO Focus Group on AI for Health, a multi-stakeholder effort to establish a framework and associated processes for the performance benchmarking of 'AI for Health' solutions. A new ad-hoc group within the focus group aims to establish the best practices for AI use during each phase in the life-cycle of a public health emergency.

Bolstering online safety and security

For many parents, the question of how to ensure their children's online safety has become more pressing than ever before. ITU's new 2020 Guidelines on Child Online Protection, were recognized by the G20 as a vital tool for the protection and empowerment of children in the digital environment.

To help build a secure and trustworthy environment for those relying on ICTs during the COVID-19 crisis, ITU has been working with partners to make cybersecurity-related tools and resources available, and launched CYB4COVID, a comprehensive repository of cybersecurity expertise related to COVID-19, assisting countries, businesses and citizens in their response to amplified and new threats in the digital space during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lessons to enhance future response capacity

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum has offered Weekly WSIS TalkX sessions examining different aspects of the global response to COVID-19. Under the WSIS Stocktaking platform, which promotes the innovative use of digital technologies to achieve social impact, the ICT Case Repository has collected projects and activities dedicated to responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

Cities house over half of the world's population and amplifies the COVID-19 pandemic. United for Smart Sustainable Cities (U4SSC) ─ an initiative coordinated by ITU, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), and UN-Habitat and supported by another 14 UN bodies ─ has created a new workstream exploring the solutions and best practices used by cities to address the pandemic.



Last update: December 2021