How many times have you washed your hands today? In the face of the novel coronavirus outbreak, there is little individual people can do except wash their hands, follow official guidance, and wait to see how the fallout will affect daily life, right?
Well, not really. People can and are doing more. Infectious diseases are threats that fall under nontraditional security—issues that transcend borders and that are best countered by an array of responses from civil society and individuals, not just governments and militaries. In the hyperconnected modern world, infectious diseases like COVID-19 are transnational threats that don’t care about borders, nationalities, or treaties. It can’t be engaged like a competing state in negotiation. The rapid outbreak prompted precisely the kind of collaborative and creative approaches that epitomize a nontraditional security response. While these innovations probably will not accelerate the progress of a COVID-19 vaccine or significantly slow the rate of infection, they can help fight feelings of panic or helplessness. They give people tools to protect the health of their communities.
At the level of the state, the response to the virus must combine whole-of-government and public-private cooperation. Even the simplest of policy decisions requires the rapid utilization of large amounts of resources ranging from research on vaccines to guidance on travel restrictions and quarantines. For example, Italy imposed a strict lockdown in the northern part of the country, soon expanding across the nation, to prevent people in Italy from spreading the coronavirus in public. This policy required businesses to shut their doors. Across the United States, cities are asking businesses to close and advising people to stay home.
While NGOs and other health-related agencies mobilize their capabilities, the catch-up period of trying to understand the virus and respond leaves people sifting through media and government reports, trying to figure out how they should respond as individuals.
In some places, new tools are ready to help. An exciting approach has come from Taiwan: a platform of apps for finding pharmacies with face masks in stock. Developed by Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang, by combining government data with the ingenuity of individual programmers, the app is an open-source tool that responds to individuals’ need for a sense of security.
By allowing users to access accurate data on which pharmacies nearby have adult and child face masks available, the app helps to quell the panic that might ensue if stories of face mask shortages began circulating. It also helps people find supplies they need if they or their neighbors are sick, a reassuring ability in an uncertain time.
Being an open-source program, the app epitomizes the broad collaboration between government officials and citizens that is necessary to address nontraditional security issues. Other countries could copy the app—the Singapore government, for example, has released an open-source app for tracing the spread of the virus. Programmers could also take the apps a step further to help people locate other vital supplies, like soap and medicine—like an app a developer in the U.S. is working on—or perhaps to identify areas where supplies are running short and donations might be needed.
Other innovators like Ryan Jun-seo Hong, a college student from South Korea, are taking a similar route. Utilizing government-sourced data, Hong’s Coronamap.live is one of several web-based applications created by private software developers to track the spread of the virus. Trackers such as this allow citizens to avoid specific areas where infection rates are higher, which can help to prevent the coronavirus from spreading outside of hotspots.
Of course, an essential distinction between the face mask app and trackers that show the spread of the virus is that the former provides actionable information that any person can use to support the health of their community. A virus tracker offers factual information on the location of infection cases. Still, an unintended side effect is discrimination against people from those areas—or even panic and confusion in an area where cases begin to be found. The face mask app, however, provides a tool in support of good hygiene behavior: Rather than wondering what to do to protect themselves, people can use the app as a prompt to buy and use face masks.
These examples show the forte of a nontraditional approach to a devastating security problem. To overcome unconventional threats, solutions that utilize strengths such as technology limit weaknesses in the current system. And—perhaps most importantly—solutions like the face mask app are a reassuring reminder that, even with social distancing, people can do a lot to help each other in an unusual time of emergency. We’re all in this together.