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The Role of Mobile in the Covid-19 Crisis

Apr 29, 2020

The past few weeks have been, without a doubt, a time of reflection for all of us. One thought that we’ve pondered is how different staying at home would have been twenty years ago. It’s difficult to imagine how we would have managed a nationwide lockdown, on both a business and personal level, without the likes of Zoom, WhatsApp, Social Media, Netflix and online shopping.

Without having to set foot out the door, many of us are able to “meet” friends, take part in a “pub” quiz, order our weekly shop for home delivery, and access entertainment in the form of online content, films, or TV. Even if we do decide to venture out to the supermarket, we can use our smartphone to make contactless payments.

So, it’s unsurprising that certain apps are experiencing a surge in popularity as a result. Total messaging on Facebook (including Instagram and WhatsApp) throughout March was up by more than 50%, with time in group calls up by over 1000%.

A Long-Term Solution

Aside from being our social saviour, the question is whether the ubiquitous smartphone can be used in the fight against the spread of Covid-19. Can their short-term convenience be leveraged to create a long-term solution?

A genetic epidemiologist at King’s College London came up with the Covid Symptom Tracker App as a means of understanding why some people suffer more severely from Covid-19 than others. Users input various personal details such as medical history, age, temperature readings, and a daily health update - even if you are well.

This is just one example. You’ve probably seen contact-tracing apps making the headlines, a development that has resulted in an unforeseen collaboration between Apple and Google. Contact-tracing apps use Bluetooth technology to record if a user comes into close proximity with someone else who uses the app. If either user reports symptoms of the coronavirus, the other person is notified so they can take appropriate precautions.

No Quick Fix

This doesn’t mean that the app will be the quick fix that we’re all longing for. Researchers have made it clear that an app alone is no substitute for a vaccine - technology would need to be used alongside other strategies. Another valid concern is that using the app will give members of the public a false sense of protection against the virus.

In order for the app to be effective. around 80% of smartphone users in the UK would need to use it – that’s equivalent to 56% of the UK population. Plus, this doesn’t take into consideration the difference between people who are willing to do something versus those who actually follow through and do it.

The Case of South Korea

Some countries are already using technology-based contact-tracing systems by analysing GPS location data, surveillance cameras, and more. In particular, many have attributed South Korea’s success in “flattening the curve” to a regime of mass testing and expansive contact tracing. With one of the world’s highest rates of phone ownership, devices are connected to between 1-3 transceivers at any time so phone location data is always accurate. Also, when customers are purchasing a phone, they are required to provide their name and national registry number, meaning that the majority of the population can be tracked by their phone location.

The tracking results are also made public via government websites, text message updates and smartphone apps that display infection hotspots. While the idea of this may cause some initial discomfort, you could argue that it results in a higher level of public trust in the government, which in turn leads to less panicking and fewer people breaking the rules.

A Privacy Trade-off

In such unprecedented times, maybe the UK would be willing to give up a level of privacy as a trade-off for more freedom of movement and a return to some resemblance of normality. Yet, there is that lingering thought of the exit strategy, and what the lasting implications of giving away such private information would be.

While it initially seems unlikely that the necessary numbers would install an app that tracks their every movement, if it’s used as part of a combined strategy with more testing and a clearly communicated process among other things, then perhaps our mobile phones are, at least, a part of the answer.

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