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COVID CONTACT TRACING - is it the technology that matters or something far, far more fundamental

This article analyses the technology and mathematics underpinning successful contract tracing –- stating that contract tracing is the key to reopening society. 

A vaccine solution is vital but uncertain from an efficacy, timeliness and equitable access perspective. Until a vaccination is a viable option for all - testing, contact tracing and isolation is the best approach we collectively appear to have. So, an intriguing mixture of digital health technology and human interaction, follow up and compliance is our lot for the foreseeable future.

Some contract tracing does not allow the apps to share geolocation or other private information.  Adoption rates are important in this scenario – and with rare exceptions (one being Australia), adoption is low and as a consequence the “apps are virtually useless”. There are privacy issues. Alternatively, there are other apps that require you to turn on location sharing but if positive for COVID, follow-up contract tracing efforts are still required. Testing, if not done extensively with quick result turnaround has limited value as the tracing will be too late and meaningless.

The significant undertaking of contract tracing requires a large number of people, particularly in large populations like the US with a high number of cases. But assuming you have the testing regime and the contract tracing resources in place – it will only succeed if the infected person trusts the person contacting them to gather tracing information. There may well be distrust at this point….

Distrust comes in many forms, from African Americans not trusting the medical establishment to Trump supporters thinking the coronavirus is fake news.  “Location tracking apps are thus only as effective as the fundamental trust between the citizens allows.” In summary the author concludes

“In the end, contact tracing is not an app, but a combined effort between technology, human tracers, and the general population. Without good faith and trust, contact tracing will fail.”

Lyle Ungar

There are elements of this thinking which resonate with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments to the European Parliament last week noting that “We are seeing at the moment that the pandemic can’t be fought with lies and disinformation, and neither can it be with hatred and agitation,”  She adds “The limits of populism and denial of basic truths are being laid bare."   These ‘limits’ are those of trust.

General Jim Mattis former US Secretary of Defence in his book Call Sign Chaos similarly alludes to this issue of trust when describing the preparation for a military battle which also involves the intersection of technology and the human element or human collaborative response and notes that on the one hand “Digital technologies do not dissipate confusion; the fog of war can actually thicken when misinformation is instantly amplified.” The ‘fog of war’ and ‘amplification of misinformation’ in our scenario is the pandemic response.

But on the other hand, he goes on to express his belief that an

“operation can only occur at the speed of trust” 

The ‘speed’ of trust – an intriguing concept.  Can we ‘speed’ it up at this time? 

Last week Dr Simon Longstaff from The Ethics Centre talked to Australians about the ‘intrinsic dignity’ of all. That our response to this pandemic needs to be equitable for ordinary people and we all need to know where we draw our line such that the intrinsic dignity of all is respected.  Building an atmosphere of trustworthiness.

Without good faith and trust and recognising the intrinsic dignity of all – many of our efforts in this extraordinary challenge of our time, will fail. If our divisive mode of modern discourse becomes our default, we are at risk of a greater fail. Let us actively train ourselves to be generous and dignified in our views, generous and dignified in our actions, cut some slack, (particular in the political arena) be optimistic and ‘trust’ again.


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