Personal Data Collection During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Key Takeaways for Global Health and Society

The guest author for this post is Colette Mazzucelli. She is an Editor for the Anthem Press book series Ethics of Personal Data Collection Series alongside James Felton Keith, which publishes scholarly works at the intersection of data, ethics and digital technology in the 21st century.

In a March 29, 2020 interview on Fareed Zakaria GPS, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore remarked that the “Government has not been using phone data to do contact tracing, but rather “traditional detective work”” during the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in the country. [1] Rather than using a mobile phone app made possible by innovative technology advances [2] to flatten the curve during the pandemic, the Prime Minister explained: “We have been interviewing people, asking them, interviewing them, tracking down their contacts, interviewing their contacts, trying to piece a story together… We hope to get a quick answer out within a couple of hours, but in fact we have pursued the cases for days to try and pin down, who talked to whom and who might have given the virus to whom.” [3] Singapore, like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea, relied on historical experience with the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 to “upgrade institutional readiness” handling the pandemic with “a combination of testing, transparency (active citizen information) and citizen awareness guided by a timely and proactive government response.” [4]

There is a wealth of personal data to help with situational awareness, which can be used to refine modelers’ predictions about the spread of the pandemic in different countries. It is particularly important that data collected from citizens by states be acquired in an open manner to inspire trust in government anchoring an “all in it together” experience as more states around the globe combat rising cases of infections and fatalities. [5] The centrality of states in the response to rapid spread of COVID-19 speaks to classical realist insights dating back to “the plague that struck Athens in 430 B.C.” [6] The stricter limitations placed on international travel by state leaders in 2020 point to further deglobalization in the post-Cold War era. Their explanation that states are at “war” with the Novel Coronavirus, including the construction of a narrative with the pandemic cited as an “invisible enemy,” [7] confirms the emergence of infectious diseases as a new security threat. This reality places global health squarely on the 21st century agenda of international relations. [8] Following the next paragraph, twelve key takeaways speak to this new context.

The impact of COVID-19 is already influencing the ways in which we experience and map the interactions of people as agents of transformation inside and across borders. The pandemic increasingly raises questions as to an evolution of thinking within diverse philosophical traditions ranging from classical realism to liberalism to social constructivism, instead of simply an entrenched competition among distinct theories. This change is likely to become the norm in learning, particularly as a transition occurs away from the Western core towards a “deep pluralism” in which postcolonial, feminist, and critical theories figure more prominently. Comparative historical research is relevant, [9] particularly empirical findings that underline a lack of change in social and cultural norms from a gender perspective, i.e., in the United States after the 1918 H1N1 Flu Virus, a pandemic which reinforced the status quo. [10] Although that pandemic led to more fatalities than World War I, there is no memorial to commemorate the human tragedy. The necessity to reason from the planetary perspective underscores the concept of “shared fates” in our world. [11]

1. Emerging pandemics and climate change are twin pillars to frame our analysis of “environmental stewardship” [12] in the context of globalization.

2. The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a “gray rhino” [13] that marks a new reference point in which the collection of personal data to safeguard the welfare of billions of people on planet Earth is central to environmental stewardship in the study of international relations. [14]

3. Globalization is defined empirically by the unprecedented “mass public transportation across continents” [15] involving over a billion people in the early 21st century leading into the unprecedented Novel Coronavirus pandemic.

4. The personal data of populations, which is acquired and tracked primarily by states, as well as international agencies, notably the World Health Organization (WHO), is subject to monitoring by new technology applications, which potentially could marginalize further the most vulnerable groups in society.

5. Listening to the ethical concerns voiced by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), i.e., The Data Union, [16] pertaining to the collection and usage of personal data by states is an essential and emerging feature of globalization.

6. The COVID-19 pandemic situates peoples and their personal data as the agents of systemic economic transformation while leaders simultaneously respond by closing borders to defend international society.[17]

7. The mutual vulnerability of billions defines security in the war to combat an invisible enemy, which replaces the stability of the Cold War era as the norm regulating the relations among people as well as states [18] in a new age of social distancing.

8. The value of personal data in society, upon which the health of the planet depends, increases during the Novel Coronavirus pandemic, as oil prices fall precipitously, [19] underlining arbitrary state power.

9. The Novel Coronavirus pandemic speaks to a reframe of international relations, defined, more broadly, as the study of war and peace, away from a Western core [20] by challenging traditional assumptions in theory with reference empirically to personal data researched from the field in a range of cases across continents.

10. International relations are interdisciplinary, which requires knowledge comparatively of world history, personal data, and public health [21] to advance theory given the impact of infectious diseases over time on diverse species. [22]

11. The COVID-19 pandemic anchors “the Other” [23] as subject of international relations with concerns about race, nationalism, and religion highlighted in the ethics of personal data collection and the domains of identity. [24]

12. As a pandemic without historical precedent in its economic, demographic, and social implications, the Novel Coronavirus places gender concerns, [25] highlighting male-female power dynamics, in tandem with internal conflict and public health at the heart of non-governmental organizations’ international humanitarian engagement.


Colette Mazzucelli, MALD, EdM, PhD, is a BMW Foundation Responsible Leader, Chair of the NYU European Horizons Advisory Board, and Senior Vice President (Academia) of the Global Listening Centre. Since 2004, she has been teaching on Graduate Faculty in New York University specializing in conflict resolution, radicalization & religion, international relations in the post-Cold War era, ethnic conflict, and Europe in the 21st Century.

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