To Trace or not to Trace: Is There A Technological Alternative for Industries in Lockdown?


Google and Apple recently annoucned they were collaborating on the development of an App.

With the Covid19 pandemic showing no signs of easing, and with lockdown causing unprecedented economic and societal damage, it is worth examining the methods and measures used by various countries. Measures used as either an alternative to lockdown or a way of transitioning away from lockdown and back to normal life. In addition to states, software giants Google and Apple recently announced they were collaborating on the creation of a tracking app that would assist in the fight against coronavirus. Using Bluetooth technology, the app would create a database of positive cases. With this data, the app would inform anyone who had either come into direct contact with someone who had tested positive, or being in that person’s immediate vicinity. In contrast to the monitoring and tracking technologies used in countries like China and Singapore, Google and Apple envision their application to be entirely voluntary, easing privacy concerns, but potentially making it less effective.

Before we examine these various high-tech tracking solutions, it is worth noting that technology is not the only means governments have employed in their battle with this disease. Chinese-style 'temperature guns', that check your temperature before entrance to shopping centers, offices and public transport, could be introduced in the west.

Central quarantine centres, piloted with some good results in China, have become a more regular feature in some countries. These involve infected people being moved to large-scale centers, where they receive treatment and convalesce; the advantage of this method over infected people quarantining at home is it protects family members.

While central quarantine centers may invoke images of austere barrack-like compounds, this is not the case in many countries. Some countries have converted luxury hotels and resorts into central quarantine centers. In Israel, ten hotels have been turned into such centres, such as the luxurious Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv, and, from the looks of things, it maintains many of its hedonistic trappings.

The Chinese also used technology in their battle with the disease from the very beginning. Using the apps Alipay and Wechat, ubiquitous in mainland China, the government made it obligatory to register your health status via these applications. Based on their status, whether your were negative, positive or at risk, each person has been given a QI health code. Green signifies negative; yellow, at risk; and red signifies you are positive for Covid19. When entering shopping malls, office complexes and restaurants, people are obliged to scan their health code; a green code grants access; yellow means movements are restricted; and red prevents you from all access.

The interent messaging service Wechat is the most popular messaging service in China.

In Hong Kong, people infected are obliged to wear electronic wristbands, which alert authorities if they break quarantine and travel outside a certain radius. In Singapore they have created an app called Trace Together, which logs infected persons and informs people who have interacted with them or been in their vicinity. South Korea’s approach to monitoring strikes me as more haphazard; when someone tests positive, the government send messages to everyone in that person’s location, alerting them that someone in their vicinity has tested positive. While the message is anonymous, the government does include personal details of the person, including age-range and gender.

Some are encouraging western governments to track and trace more, and to make tracking and tracing central in their attempts to combat Covid19. In Ireland, Tómas Ryan, a professor in Trinity Colege Dublin's School of Biochemistry and Immunology wrote in the Irish Times recently, 'This is not merely a case of scaling up testing capacity – we need to search, identify and isolate all potential cases and contacts. Individuals with symptoms (primary cases), and their families or housemates, would be quarantined and tested. Rigorous contact tracing would identify, isolate and test all contacts (secondary cases) and tertiary and quaternary contacts.'

In China these measures are mandatory and state-led. If introduced in more liberal, civil-rights-based societies, they could infringe upon data protection and privacy rights, as well as provoke a backlash.

However, as I mentioned above, both Google and Apple have announced they are developing a tracking and monitoring app that would be opt-in; you chose to share your data so the risk you pose to yourself and others can be assessed. Ireland's HSE, the public health authority, have currently contracted software developers to develop an opt-in app.

The app Apple and Google are developing sounds simple but effective; if you have come into contact with an infected person, interacted with him or her or being within a certain radius, you are informed and encouraged to take medical precautions; likewise, if you become infected, everyone you have been in contact with or who you had been within a certain radius of you is informed and advised to take certain precautions. The data is anomynised, so although you will be informed when you come into contact with an infected person, you will not be informed who that person is or any other private details about him or her. While it sounds promising in principle, the Google/Apple model requires the public to voluntarily divulge their medical information; if they fail to do this, the technology is useless. In some countries, there may be legal challenge to such widespread use of private information, as well as fears that some governments may de-anonymise the data. On the positive side, there does not appear to be a stigma developing around those that contract Covid19, although if a certain person becomes very sick or dies from Covid19, knowing who was likely to have infected that person becomes problematic for obvious reasons.

Finally, our battle with Covid19 may permanently change the way we design and build living and work places. The recent shift towards open-plan offices and work-spaces could be reversed; with more plexiglass, partitions, capsules and pods.

So, where does this leave us? Should western countries consider such measures? Compulsory temperature checks? Technological tracking and tracing systems? Quarantine in large centres? The picture painted is of an altogether more angsty and socially-alienated society, with more rules, regulations and paperwork.

Also, it is hard to say whether these measures will mark a permanent shift towards a more regulated, monitored and administrated kind of society, just as it is impossible to know what the wider effects of this pandemic will be. The SARS outbreak - and Covid19 is a close, if more virulent, cousin of SARS - that scourged Hong Kong in the early noughties did not have a profoundly transformative effect on Hong Kong society, although memories of it remain. That said, the Black Death had a profound and irreversible effect on the course of Western civilisation. The bubonic plague that rampaged through Europe in the 14th century changed everything. It undermined feudal hierarchies and it stimulated a questioning of religious dogma and institutions, thus laying the foundations for the enlightenment and the Protestant reformation. It changed the course of human history and this could too.

However, I think they should be considered. There is rarely a good reason not to even consider an idea, especially in an emergency with so much at stake.

Many of the arguments such as these used against tracing, new technologies and quarantine centres, could just as easily be used against lockdown. While it is impossible to know, I think an extended lockdown period would be far more damaging than some of the measures and innovations I discussed above, and not just for our economy, but for our way of life too; and I am not the only one.

Daniel Fuluish, professor of statistical genetics at the Institut Pasteur of Shanghai, speaking to the UK’s Sun newspaper, remarked; ‘“The lockdown is much more draconian than central quarantining ...It's the only measure that affects you if you’re infected or not’.

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