Coronavirus: Pandemic shines light on Hong Kong's monitoring woes

A traveller wears a wrist band to track her movement in the arrival hall of Hong Kong International Airport on March 19, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG - As the number of confirmed coronavirus patients climb, Hong Kong's quarantine monitoring process has been found to be wanting and thrown up issues of technology and enforcement, especially when compared to Singapore.

A social media executive who wants to be known as Ms Alex Smith was left feeling frustrated during her compulsory 14-day quarantine after failing multiple times to register herself on the Hong Kong government phone app that tracks her whereabouts.

The QR code-enabled wristband issued to her could not connect to her phone.

Occasional calls are made to those in quarantine to scan the QR code with their phones.

"I think the app was not ready to be rolled out. The idea is great but they needed to work with the IT team to execute this on a large scale," she said.

Reviews of the government app, called Stayhomesafe, had similar gripes, with many users complaining it does not work and calling it "poor technology".

Over in Singapore, Mr Keval Singh, 38, found the quarantine registering and monitoring process "pretty seamless".

The former news editor had returned to the Republic from Beijing and activated the GPS tracking of his mobile phone via a link sent by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.

"One has to respond to text messages within an hour, which I missed one night, as I'd fallen asleep. I replied to the SMS the next day and that same day, I received a phone call to check on my whereabouts," he said.

The biggest difference in experiences of those under quarantine in Hong Kong and Singapore lie in the enforcement and not just the technology, said lawmaker Charles Mok, who represents the information technology sector.

"The key is if you do the spot checks frequently enough," he said.

"In Singapore and Taiwan, you have people calling three times a day and checked on. But there are people here who don't get a call until the 12th day.

"The government doesn't have enough manpower or resources to do checks which makes people think 'maybe I should take the risk'."

Hong Kong's monitoring woes came under scrutiny after social media posts showed people wearing the government-issued wristbands to be out and about, shopping and dining.

The incidents triggered a plea from Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Monday (March 23) for people to abide by quarantine measures, spare a thought for the front-line healthcare workers, and not go out and "eat cart noodles or play basketball".

On Wednesday, the government admitted that a batch of wristbands distributed in the past week to around 30,000 arrivals were not "smart" devices nor effective.

Chief Information Officer Victor Lam said in a radio programme that the wristbands do not alert the authorities if individuals wearing them leave home.

The authorities also have no way of knowing if people leave their phones behind when they go out.

But Mr Lam said people arriving in the city from Europe or America would be given a new type of electronic wristband that connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth.

"We pair the Bluetooth-enabled wristband with the smartphone and if the person cuts the wristband or brings the wristband out, leaving the smartphone at home, that person will also be detected as a record in our system," he added.

But the use of such wristbands may not be ideal, as it has limited functionality, noted Mr Anthony Lim, Singapore director at the Centre for Strategic Cyberspace and International Studies.

"The wristband may not be a good idea, as it costs money, effort and materials to produce, and has a battery cell inside.

"Hence some may view it as wastage and inefficient, especially at a time when we are trying to go green, reduce carbon footprint and reduce use of plastics," he added.

So far, Hong Kong has recorded 410 confirmed Covid-19 patients of which four have died and 106 discharged.

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