Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Google and Apple Team Up to Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic

The year 2020 has been quite the tough year so far, courtesy the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease, which started from the spread of a novel coronavirus among a few locals in Wuhan in China, has now affected all but 15 countries, infected more than 20 million worldwide and caused the deaths of nearly 150,000. Included in the numbers are over 672,000 confirmed cases and more than 33,300 deaths within the United States. So, it seems sensible to find new and more effective ways to tracking and control the viruses spread. 

For months, we have seen more markets, factories and trade centers shut down. Many businesses have either stopped operating, shifted to online ordering, delivery and pick-up only, or a work-from-home model while millions of people have lost their jobs or taken cuts in their salaries – and all of this as most among the healthy remain confined to their own homes. Even with the virus peaking, the United States is preparing to loosen restrictions in order to get the economy stimulated again while still hoping to mitigate the spread of the virus. At such a critical time everyone should be following appropriate guidelines to try to ensure the health and safety of our communities but, as we know, this is not foolproof. And brings to light the importance of tracking person-to-person contacts when they do occur.

In an age when “social distancing” is the norm, the world got a new surprise when tech rivals Google and Apple announced a team up to create and launch a contact tracing system. The goal is to help the public and governments trace the activities of the people infected with COVID-19 and gather real-time data on the spread of COVID-19 while also alerting those that may have been exposed.

Contact tracing as a task is as straightforward as it sounds – it is set of processes followed in the event of the spread of various infectious diseases (such as the novel coronavirus) wherein epidemiologists and health care workers trace all the people the diseased had contact with. Once this location has been completed, the various persons in question are tested, and if required isolated so that they can be treated and do not end up spreading the disease further. The same process is repeated for each contact till no evidence of infection is found.

In the older years, this was extremely difficult, if not impossible – despite the fact that people did not travel at the pace at which they are now. Most notably used for measles, Ebola, and HIV, the process of contact tracing involved multiple phone calls and visits, along with long-drawn interviews. While the process is faster (and thanks to technology) simpler today, it still takes a few days at least to trace contacts for each patient. Wuhan in China seemed to have managed the situation with a team of 9,000 health workers who worked in teams of five. However, in other countries like Italy and United States, where the number of infected patients is much higher, hiring health workers exclusively for contact tracing is virtually impossible. The process is also tough in other economically challenged countries like those in Africa, South America and Asia, where resources are scarce to begin with.

Building upon these visible difficulties, the recommendations of various educational institutes and research bodies including (but not limited to) the University of Oxford and the European Data Protection Supervisor, and the success of similar contact tracing apps in curbing the spread of COVID-19 in countries like South Korea and Singapore, the app will maintain an automatic record of an individual’s whereabouts and contacts, and will constantly update areas that are most affected and most at-risk of developing the infection.

Such an app has some very key benefits to offer. Real time generated contact records will help health workers trace contacts without the drudgery of going through the process manually. This will help save vital time and bring in, test and treat the infected faster – preventing more deaths and infections. On the other hand, identification of hotspots and those generally at a higher risk will enable governments to enact proper testing and sanitization protocols, helping to curb the spread of the contagion.

With two tech giants working behind the project, no size or technical challenge will be too big. Given the fact that both Apple and Google have billions of users all over the planet, an app that works cross-platform unanimously will easily integrate into phones all over the world, irrespective of nationalities, languages and people’s lifestyle choices. So long as they have a smartphone, their movements can be traced. 

If this were a few months ago, when the novel coronavirus wasn’t as much in the picture, such an app would be an appalling idea, with people rolling their eyes on governments’ desire to take surveillance to an all-time high. But now, this more than a tolerable idea because it isn’t just the governments but people who need to know where and how they can move safely. A large portion of the world itself is currently under lockdown, and while that does seem to be working, it simply cannot be a permanent solution. Moreover, even when the curve gets flattened and the disease does get contained, there is always a chance of a second wave of outbreaks. An app that traces the movement of people is more than the best way to avoid another unwanted outbreak of the deadly novel coronavirus – it is the need of the hour.

Help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus by maintaining a physical distance of at least 6 ft between yourself and others in public.