Contact Tracing Apps and Covid Around the World
Isadora Teich wrote this article
This has been a pretty hot topic for months now, and we’d even explored some of the pros, cons, and ideas relating to these apps in a blog post a few months back.
Since then, there have been a lot of advances!
In this blog post, we are going to take a look at a few of the different approaches to contact tracing apps around the world. Have these apps proven more or less successful than we hoped?
Who’s using them, who isn’t, and why?
Let’s take a look, starting with North America.
Controversy in the Americas
Toward the beginning of COVID, there was a race in the US amongst tech creators and businesses to create contact tracing apps to help stem the spread of the virus. However, this has largely been stymied for a few reasons. Ultimately, contact tracing has been unsuccessful in the Americas.
When it comes to COVID, keeping track of all the news everywhere can drive you crazy. For example, as I write this, Canada is reporting that it has had no COVID deaths for the first time since spring. There are also reports of infection spikes in some of its most populous provinces.
What does this mean? How are we supposed to feel about a constant stream of news that everything is getting better but also worse all the time? What can apps really do?
While using contact tracing apps can be helpful to fight COVID in conjunction with other measures, throughout the Americas we have seen a reluctance to use these apps. There has been a lot of criticism of them.
While apps have been rolled out it countries like Chile, Brazil, and Argentina, in Chile they have questioned their legality since the beginning.
The Individual vs the Collective
Critics of Canada’s app say that it is all around a bad app. They say it puts style over substance. They also say that app makers had to be so focused on convincing people that it would protect privacy, that it hampered the app in general.
The question of sacrificing personal desires and privacy for collective good has been a hot button issue throughout the Americas and Europe. Maskless people have even marched in Madrid, Berlin, and across the US to protest COVID restrictions.
While not a lot of data exists to prove or disprove the efficacy of these apps in the Americas, we can see that COVID continues to spread, and people remain suspicious of or even unwilling to use the apps.
Why Has Contact Tracing Failed In The US
This article by Wired explores the experience of Jodie Pond, the health director in Teton County, Wyoming.
Her efforts to encourage mask use and employ a contact tracing app were complicated and ground to a halt by the state bureaucracy. Her experience is likely not unique.
There are a few reasons why contact tracing has ultimately failed in the US. The fact of the matter is, whether contact tracing apps succeed or fail seems to boil down to several complex factors, not including the quality of the app itself. Some of them are:
– Accessible and rapid testing
– A strong response from and public trust in the government and the health system
– A social safety net to support those affected by the pandemic
– A sense of social responsibility
– Mass technological literacy
All of these things are lacking in the US.
As of now, some countries around the world have started to use Google and Apple’s COVID-19 Contact Tracing API to track infections. In the US, a few states are using it, but most of the country is not.
The EU Remains Divided
Europe is complicated to get a handle on in terms of COVID because each country is very different.
For example, the countries hit worst based on infections by numbers alone are Russia and Spain. Russia has over a million infections and Spain has almost 500,000. However, if you look at the infection rate per 100,000 people, Russia does not even break the top 10 of worst-hit countries in Europe. Spain, however, sits at #3 on this list.
Then there are countries like Romania and Portugal. They have been advertised as “COVID safe travel destinations” due to the measures they have taken. In fact, even some islands and rural places in Spain, one of the worst-hit countries on earth, have seen little of the devastation of COVID.
So, how has contact tracing been approached and utilized in Europe?
This un-unified approach hampered by national interests and politics has left the people unprotected.
Even though many European countries have strong social safety nets and accessible healthcare, infighting and bureaucracy have gotten in the way of a unified tech approach.
Instead of a unified approach from the EU, countries have largely been left to flounder on their own. Some have criticized the EU for continuing business as usual with a blind eye at the very start of the pandemic, as Italy and Spain went under.
What started in March as a collaborative effort between academics and computer developers to create a single European protocol ultimately went nowhere. It was squashed by competing national interests and privacy concerns. Then finally the announcement in mid-April that Apple and Google were collaborating on their own contact tracing app was the final nail in the coffin.
Currently, some countries are using their own contact tracing apps. Some have opted for the Google-Apple app. And others haven’t decided yet.
This alone is a problem. Especially in the EU, freedom of movement is a part of everyday life. If there is no centralized way to keep track of infections on the continent, these apps will prove useless. Currently, COVID is continuing to spike across most of the continent.
Africa is home to over a billion people but has only about a million cases in total. To put things in perspective, the US has a population of about 330 million, and about 6.5 million cases in total.
However, it is important to keep in mind that these numbers may be skewed by a lack of equipment.
At the start of the pandemic, only 2 countries on the African continent had access to testing.
South Africa’s cases and deaths are sharply declining. Infections are surging in Morrocco and across North Africa. And, in many places, lack of testing and tools makes it impossible to know exactly what is happening. South Africa, which has been dealing with COVID better than many other countries, has released a contact tracing app. It is being used in conjunction with their other already effective methods of COVID control.
Their app, Covid Alert SA, is built on the exposure notification Application Programming Interface (API), developed by Apple and Google. With it, you can report if you are infected, and it will then notify other users who have come into contact with you.
However, this app does face some challenges. It has been criticized due to potential privacy issues. Also, a large percentage of the country’s population does not have smartphones. Such apps only work when most people use them.
Many countries in East Asia have been praised for their unified and strong response to COVID. While infections and cases soar on almost every other country, Vietnam’s highest number of new cases per day stands at 82 people total. Keep in mind that they have a population of almost 100 million people.
While some Western critics claim that controlling COVID is only possible in communist states or dictatorships, many of East Asia’s democracies have done well at controlling the virus.
While Communist China has been able to flatten the curve and claims that this is due to the strength of their president and government, so has Democratic South Korea.
China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan have all been much more successful at flattening the curve.
However, this is not the case across all of Asia. In India, cases have been steadily rising without pause since spring. And they continue to rise. Indonesia is also faring poorly.
Using Technology to Fight COVID
One big factor that separates successful countries from those that continue to fail is their unified use of contact tracing apps and tech to fight COVID. Rather than getting bogged down in ethics, regional politics, or red tape, these countries have applied these apps widely to great effect to save lives. Taiwan is even credited with being the first country to employ apps to fight the spread of COVID.
For one, many eastern societies are more focused on the collective than the individual. There, people are more likely to accept these apps, more likely to have trust in public structures and rules, and more likely to take steps to work toward collective safety.
While Canada has emphasized that its contact tracing app is voluntary, in some of the countries we have talked about these apps are either mandatory or heavily encouraged.
Some things they have been able to do to stop the spread of the virus would be met with protest in the West.
For example, Hong Kong, which has also seen effective containment, implemented a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon entry for all overseas arrivals. In many countries, this is only a suggestion. And some do not demand it at all.
To enforce it, Hong Kong required every new arrival to download the StayHomeSafe app.
They also gave them a wristband that uses geofencing technology to make sure they maintain the quarantine. Newcomers are tracked and warned that anyone caught violating the quarantine can face up to six months in prison and a $3,200 fine.
Contact Tracing and COVID
Of course, whether a country copes well or poorly with COVID has to do with a lot more than simply downloading apps.
There is public health infrastructure, overall culture, wealth, leadership, and access to technology to consider as well. In many countries, most of the citizens do not have access to smartphones or apps at all.
However, it cannot be denied that the countries that acted quickly and decisively and embraced these technologies are faring far better against COVID than those that did not. However, there have also been some critics of what are considered to be their extreme measures that restrict freedom.
Are you for or against the use of apps to trace, track, and quarantine?
Talk to me.
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