Asian governments embrace digital communications during pandemic

11 Aug 20

Muhammad Afnan Alam explores different Asian government's digital approaches to Covid-19, identifying successes across the continent.


In February 2020, the World Health Organisation described the rapid growth of Covid-19-related misinformation as an "infodemic." The flood of information related to the pandemic presents a challenge in itself. In addition to accurate information, there is disinformation and misinformation about possible cures or remedies for the virus, the origin of the disease, the details of particular cases, the efficacy of government policies, and much more. The pandemic has also brought new needs for digital government services and more demand for existing facilities.

Like governments around the world, developers in Asian governments were mobilised and engaged in designing new apps and services to help in the fight against the coronavirus. Some of these new services included delivering food and other essential items to those most in need by optimising the entire supply chain via digital government services. Of all the tools leaders and governments have at their disposal in crisis management, public communication preparedness has the highest impact on transmission reduction, for the lowest cost.

Reviewing the successful Asian government's communications strategies reveals six distinct patterns:

  • Early and proactive provision of information;
  • Maintaining honest and transparent disclosure, even when numbers painted a dark or uncertain picture;
  • Carefulness in putting facts before politics, creating a standard national narrative;
  • Allowing strategies to evolve with the dynamic situation of rising or downward trend of the coronavirus;
  • Erring on the side of over-caution instead of over-confidence, and;
  • Keeping messages simple, clear, and unambiguous, breaking complicated topics into bite-sizes.

The Singapore government and its ministries have all pulled together to keep the nation working, through its various digital initiatives throughout this pandemic from the very start. It maintained strong momentum on community engagement and set up a cross-ministerial task force (calling the virus response a whole-of-government issue). The messaging from the government remained consistent, and messaging is generally limited to a small number of authoritative people in the government.

Singaporeans can subscribe to WhatsApp updates from the Ministry of Health or find up-to-date information on the ministry's website. These updates summarise the current situation in the country. This dedicated site gives very transparent details on each confirmed case. The website shares the age, sex and occupation of each person who has tested positive for the virus. It reveals where they travelled recently, and when they sought medical help.

South Korea structured public service messaging in a laudably empathetic manner. Koreans get daily government alerts on their mobile phones about new public announcements in their respective location. If a positive case were reported in one's area, one would be able to click through a link in their government alert to see in detail where the infected patient had been locally. South Korea has the world's fastest internet. Also, it was the first to roll out commercial 5G connectivity. It makes sense, then, that the country would be a hotbed for mobile apps.


Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea


Private sector Korean companies in liaison with the government have deployed smartphone applications are that use government data to track patients who have tested positive. The applications send their movements (but not names) to mobile devices in their area, allowing people to give those places a wide berth. The government has also rolled out an app that will monitor infected citizens ordered to quarantine in their homes. It will send alerts to the government if those people leave quarantine.

Also, the South Korean government launched a tower managing crisis, and communications provide crisis management governance. This consisted of a control tower (a working group centred around the Korean Centers of Disease Control and Prevention), an advisory group (medical experts) and a decision-making group (central government leaders who were able to execute decisions quickly and provide resources and other support, as needed). The Korean government also developed a crisis management manual. The manual provides a breakdown of the activities guiding the crisis management team to undertake actions as per the crisis level/stage of national public health threat.

The Vietnamese government communicated in clear, strong terms about the dangers of the illness even before the first case was reported. The government frequently interacted with the public, adding a short prevention statement to every phone call placed in the country, texting people directly. The Vietnamese government also took advantage of taking advantage of country's high use of social media – 64 million active Facebook users are in Vietnam, and 80% of smartphone users in Vietnam have the local social media app, Zalo.

Also, the Vietnamese National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health partnered with a famous lyricist and dancer Quang Dang to spearhead a dance challenge on TikTok with new lyrics of a famous pop song in a handwashing public service announcement. Along with this dance contest, the Vietnamese Ministry of Health sent ten SMS messages to all cell phone users in the country. Throughout these communications, the government regularly used the motto: "Fighting the epidemic is like fighting against the enemy. "This messaging engendered a community spirit in which every citizen felt inspired to do their part, whether that was wearing a mask in public or enduring weeks of quarantine.

Pakistan's government has come up with innovative smart solutions and exploring the use of technology to create awareness, mitigate the risks, and contain the shock produced by such pandemics. To promote public knowledge, the government has, in collaboration with the telecommunication industry, replaced ringtones with an awareness message to the caller about the dangers of Covid-19 and measures that can be taken to remain safe. The government regularly sends an SMS to encourage people to wash their hands and practise social distancing. Authorities are also contacting suspects of confirmed cases through mobile tracking and pushing them to get their tests done.

Pakistan's government also partnered with a private company and launched a Facebook messenger enabled Chatbot. The Chatbot guides Urdu (Pakistan's national language) and English, and its interactive menu provides options for users to learn about the coronavirus, its symptoms, and protective measures. Users can also assess their risk of infection by answering a series of yes-or-no questions. The government launched a public web portal that provides the summary of domestic coronavirus cases along with information on prevention and testing.

Earlier, the National Institute of Health was publishing daily situation reports on its website. In the days leading up to the launch of the portal and since, the government has relied on support from private technology companies and civic-tech groups, which volunteered their time and technical resources.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's provincial government of Pakistan produced 32 videos in-house on various aspects of the Covid-19 crisis. The government also scripted a video with a group of talented film and sound professionals to create a pro-bono animation that became Pakistan's most viral public service announcement later covered in Reuters and the New York Times. Also, the provincial government commissioned a baseline dipstick study to understand existing public knowledge of Covid-19 in Pakistan's most underdeveloped areas. These identified communications channels could reach them and assess the public response to the lockdown and preventive measures in place to control the outbreak of the virus.

In neighbouring India, the department of telecommunications has asked cell phone operators to run coronavirus awareness messages in place of the regular caller tunes. The Indian state of Punjab also launched a smartphone application 'COVA Punjab' to share advisories with residents. COVA stands for Corona Virus Alert and has been developed by the Department of Government Reforms and Public Grievances in consultation with the Health and Family Welfare Department to spread awareness by sharing various travelling and preventive care advisories. The application provides options to citizens to check out for symptoms as provided by the government from time to time and follow the announcement given thereafter. The smartphone application also suggests the nearest hospital and nodal officer of district where the citizen can reach in-case they are symptomatic.

"Investments in these technologies can tremendously support the future resilience of the health economy and public services delivery"

The Indian state of Kerala's model has already been hailed for its preparedness in testing, tracing and isolation, is also a case study in public communication. It utilised both traditional and new media to communicate in several local languages, with a focus on migrant-dominated areas. The government's 'Break the Chain' campaign and Corona Literacy Mission reached out aggressively and proactively to families with educational content, including a coordinated effort from the Kerala Police's Media Center to produce localised videos, poems and dances. It is no coincidence that the Kerala Police's Facebook page is one of the most popular police department pages in the world, with 1.4 million followers. A mobile app called GoK Direct regularly checked the spread of misinformation.

Kerala's communication strategy boasted the additional element of political unity. Not only did the state's chief minister build faith in the state's response by speaking to the people of Kerala for an hour every evening, but he also jointly addressed local body representatives with the opposition leader by his side. "We must close down all our doors before the enemy enters" was their shared message of caution."

The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing governments and societies to turn toward digital technologies to respond to the crisis in the short-term, resolve socio-economic repercussions in the mid-term and reinvent existing policies and tools in the long-term. Navigating through these challenging times requires governments to adopt an open government approach and to use digital communication channels to provide reliable information on global and national Covid-19 developments.

E-participation platforms can represent useful tools to engage with vulnerable groups online and to establish digital initiatives to collectively brainstorm for policy ideas to critical social and economic challenges. Effective public-private partnerships, through sharing technologies, expertise and tools, can support governments in restarting the economy and rebuilding societies.

Developing countries, in particular, will need international cooperation and support in mitigating the crisis. Therefore, regional, national and local project-based collaborations with private sector companies, international organisations and other stakeholders are necessary. In the long-term, governments need to accelerate the implementation of innovative digital technologies such as AI-powered technology, blockchain, and drones. Investments in these technologies can tremendously support the future resilience of the health economy and public services delivery.

  • Muhammad Afnan Alam

    Muhammad is a career federal government civil servant from Pakistan

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