By Dr S. Saraswathi
(Former Director ICSSR, New Delhi)
The Union Home Ministry has made Aarogya Setu (Bridge to Health) app, a contact tracing app, mandatory for all “returnees” – meaning migrant labourers and those coming from abroad. The move is intended to facilitate better contact surveillance in COVID-19 cases which is necessary for controlling the epidemic and providing timely medical intervention. Passengers have to download the app on their mobile phones before commencing their journey.
Aarogya Setu, updated version of Corona Kavach, which showed nearness to any COVID-19 patient, is the Indian mobile application developed by National Informatics Centre under Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and was launched on 2 April soon after the announcement of lockdown. It is said to be one of the most effective instruments for COVID-19 tracking. In Maharashtra, it has helped in predicting a number of hotspots.
It’s a tool of virus surveillance which is now a global imperative to break the chain of disease transmission. Omnipresence of viruses across continents and their diversities necessitate constant updating of information on their movements.
In an order issued on 29 April, the Centre made it compulsory for all employees to download the app on their mobile phones and use it. They were asked to check the status on the app before leaving home for office and proceed only if the app showed “safe” or “low risk”. If the status is shown as “moderate” or “high risk” calculated on the basis of proximity to a COVID-19 infected person, they should not attend office and self-isolate for 14 days until their status becomes “safe”. The head of the organisation is responsible to enforce compliance with the order.
This way, opening offices is made safe for everyone attending the office. Latest such order has come from the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir where all government employees are required to install the app on their mobile phones and produce certificates to that effect for receiving their salaries. Private companies too are being brought under Aarogya Setu.
Making it mandatory for all living in a specific area or working in a specific place is being considered and even attempted in some places. But, its legality and feasibility are doubtful. It can be useful optional tool for persons concerned to keep safe from risk zones, but its effectiveness in monitoring the disease to prevent its escalation seems limited considering the fact that not more than 30% of the population owns a smartphone.
A writ petition is filed in Kerala High Court challenging the constitutionality of government directive to make Aarogya Setu ‘mandatory for all employees, both private and public’. In fact, in a recent order on May 17, the Union Home Ministry itself has softened its position by amending its earlier order saying, employers “on best effort basis” should ensure that Aarogya Setu is installed by all employees having compatible mobile phones.
Any pandemic demands non-medical and social practices as remedies and more so in the absence of a vaccine. Contact tracing first came into use in a big way in 2003 to fight SARS and in 2014 for fighting EBOLA. It is necessary to treat sexually transmitted diseases. In the case of COVID-19, exposure to the infection happens within 6 feet distance for 5 to 10 minutes from an infected person.
Several countries are competing with one another for developing applications that can trace and monitor contacts of an infected person – a “detective” work physically done so far by means of enquiries and searches. It is a laborious and time consuming process and is made easier and instantaneous by Aarogya Setu.
Already survey and mapping of red zones showing the size of habitations, population size and composition, geographic distribution of COVID-19 cases, proximity to other habitations, accessibility, geographic barriers, mobility in the area are done. The data can be integrated with Aarogya Setu to get more comprehensive picture of the areas that need closer watch.
The app can alert us if anyone we have come in contact has tested positive for Coronavirus even if he is asymptomatic. Since contact is the main route for spread of the disease, it is absolutely necessary to trace the affected person’s contacts and bring everyone of them for testing.
Aarogya Setu lets users know if they have been near a person with COVID-19 by scanning a database of known cases of infection. The app calculates the risk of infection based on exposure time and proximity and recommends measures and collects other particulars like gender, travel history, habits like smoking, etc.
China has done mass experiments in using data to regulate citizens’ lives by requiring them to use a software on their smartphones that dictates whether they should be quarantined or allowed into subways, malls, and other public places. Thousands of contact tracers are employed in Wuhan.
South Korea and New Zealand developed contact tracing methods in connection with Mid East Respiratory System (MERS) in 2015. Canadian government introduced a nationwide contact tracing programme using the services of volunteers.
Singapore’s Trace Together app can be used only by the Health Ministry to access data. It assures citizens that the data is to be used strictly for disease control and will not be shared with law enforcement agencies for enforcing lockdowns and quarantine. In the US, attempts are on in some States to pursue contact tracing. In the UK, the London Team wants to find out any and all contacts made within a specific time frame – two days before symptoms through 14 days.
India’s Aarogya Setu, it is said, will not be publicising the identity of users. No third party will have access to the data. On the contrary, it alerts users if they come in contact with a COVID-affected person.
Only those who have a smartphone are able to use this app, which identifies only symptomatic cases that have been reported and tested. In India, despite huge publicity to COVID-19 related news, several cases may go unreported due to fear of compulsory quarantine, prolonged medical treatment, and fear of social stigma.
So far, about 10 crore people are said to have downloaded the app despite huge controversies raging over possible threat to data security and right to through this app. Government has assured that the data stored on servers would be used only for COVID-19 purposes and would be deleted after 180 days. WHO has recommended certain surveillance standards.
To the extent contact tracing can be done through machines, it must be welcome so that it will not go the way of social distancing openly violated by ignorance and deliberate plan. A mechanical device can certainly give better results than manual. But, Aarogya Setu may not be the ultimate answer to this huge task in the prevailing social conditions. —INFA