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Protect lives, not data, in COVID pandemic

December 19, 2020

Germany, get off your high horse! Digital double standards and uncompromising data protection won't defeat the coronavirus pandemic, says Astrid Prange.

Symbolfoto zum Thema Datensicherheit auf dem Smartphone Haende tippen auf einem Smartphone Berlin
Germans readily hand over their data to Facebook and Google, but not to coronavirus warning appsImage: Thomas Trutschel/photothek/imago

Germany in the winter of COVID: As the death toll continues to rise, in many public health departments the test results from the labs are still drifting in by fax while the population does its Christmas shopping online.

No, this is not fiction. It is all too real. It is a testament to Germany's digital backwardness. And it shows that the combination of digital inadequacy and unbending data protection rules can be extremely dangerous in a pandemic.

To date, more than 25,000 people in Germany have died with or of COVID-19. In South Korea there have been fewer than 700 victims. South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have set an example, showing that the digital fight against the coronavirus can save lives.

According to Johns Hopkins University, South Korea, with a population of 52 million, has recorded a total of 47,515 infections since the start of the pandemic. In Germany, by December 18, almost 1.5 million people had been infected.

And from the German perspective, Taiwan looks like the land of the blessed. The island of 23 million has the pandemic completely under control: Infections have been limited to around 700 cases, and to date fewer than 10 people have died.

Quarantine, mandatory mask wearing, and digital surveillance — that's the successful formula in Asia. Whereas in Singapore people are required to enter personal details on a government app every day, in Germany, not even public health departments have access to the government's coronavirus app, as Ute Teichert, the chair of the German Association of Doctors in the Public Health Service (BVÖGD) recently complained.

Prange de Oliveira Astrid Kommentarbild App
DW's Astrid Prange

Ineffective coronavirus app

It's unbelievable that, in the midst of the pandemic, many health departments are still using analog technology. And while every day millions of people in Germany hand over their data for free to digital monsters like Facebook, Amazon, Instagram and Twitter, they give the coronavirus warning app the cold shoulder.

I cannot stand these digital double standards any longer. I don't want to have discussions about data protection as I watch Germany become mired in lockdown and the livelihoods of millions are being destroyed.

I don't want to look on any more as contact restrictions drive millions of people into isolation, restrictions of freedom are accepted, and an entire generation's plans for the future are put on hold, while at the same time people continue to vehemently defend the protection of personal data.

Nor can I continue to bear the conspicuous arrogance in this part of the world toward countries that have had impressive success in fighting the pandemic. In the spring, when mask-wearing had already been made compulsory in South Korea, scientists in Germany were still expressing doubts about whether there was any point in wearing a covering over the mouth and nose.

Germany is paying a high price for this arrogance. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the German economy is set to shrink by 5.5% in 2020.

In Taiwan and South Korea, on the other hand, economic and social life continues more or less as normal. Shops and restaurants are open. South Korea only has to reckon with a one-percent downturn in 2020. And Taiwan's economy has actually grown, by 2.4%.

Germany, get off your high horse! Say goodbye to eurocentrism and knowing it all. Take the lessons of the pandemic to heart. For me, these include: Protecting health is more important than protecting data. Appeals to personal responsibility do not protect lives. And the false claims of COVID deniers do not signal freedom of expression, but irresponsibility.