CONTACT tracing (CT) is a trusted-and-tested method in containing an outbreak. CT entails, in its most rudimentary form, interviewing a patient about whom he/she has been in contact with during the period of illness so that they can be tracked, diagnosed and treated, and the spread of the disease can be contained.
In its manual interview form, the method is feasible for a medium-to-slow spreading disease. For instance, if one contracts tuberculosis, it would be easy for him to recount where and with whom he has been, and the people concerned would be contacted and treated if required. If one suffers food poisoning, it’s easy to recall where the food was cooked or purchased and who also ate it.
But for a fast-spreading, airborne viral disease like Covid-19, manual tracing that relies heavily on people’s memory and self-reporting is unreliable. It’s harder to recall the person who stood next to you while you were buying ikan kembung at the fish market, for example.
CT for Covid-19, while crucial, is a painstaking job for our frontline healthcare workers. This is where e-Tracing comes in. Different forms of e-Tracing apps have been developed, some relying on GPS technology and others on Bluetooth. In this dizzying array of data collection granularity, I would urge that data collection should be minimal and just sufficient to answer the paramount CT question: “Who have you met over the past x days?”
The idea of traceability, while arguably different from constant surveillance, does sound Orwellian and risks being perceived as unpalatable by those who champion individual privacy.
But there’s another aspect of human rights that’s more significant, one that is more oriented to our Eastern values, and that is collective right, where members of society are willing to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper. The peer-to-peer e-Tracing initiative falls under this category.
The idea of a cooperative traceability for societal well-being isn’t entirely new. It is the reason why we allow CCTV systems in certain premises, register at the guardhouse before entering our friend’s condo unit, and why we have the identity card (MyKad). The MyKad traces its roots to the Emergency period where the system was used as a method to trace insurgent activities in the community.
In this pandemic, we are facing a peculiar type of enemy – one that is invincible, stealthy and cuts across societal and ideological lines. We need an effective tracing tool that can outsmart and outpace Covid-19, and e-Tracing is that solution. The e-Tracing app will, to some degree, return to civil society their freedom to move while keeping the spread of Covid-19 in check.
During the movement control order (MCO) period, we surrendered our freedom of movement to help our frontliners in flattening the curve of Covid-19 infections, ultimately relieving the pressure on our healthcare system.
After the MCO, people will be out and about again and infection could recur. We can support our frontliners to contain that infection by participating in the peer-to-peer e-Tracing initiative.
Chatham House Speaker for Digital Epidemiology & Global Health
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