Coronavirus: Healthcare concerns should take priority when contact tracing, says Shanmugam

About one in six people have downloaded the TraceTogether app in Singapore. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

WASHINGTON - Contact tracing apps are a key part of getting a country to open up again, and not being able to actively trace people who were in contact with Covid-19 patients has serious implications for public health, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in comments on the necessity of such apps on Friday (May 1).

"We can't all be in a state of suspended animation, all staying in our rooms. If you don't die of the virus, you'll die of economic stagnation," said Mr Shanmugam during an online discussion on how cities including Singapore and New York City are battling the coronavirus.

"You need to open up, but in a controlled way, and the answer is massive testing, and massive tracing," he added at the event hosted by the American magazine Foreign Policy.

Mr Shanmugam's comments on the trade-offs between privacy and public health come amid recent concerns and statements from ministers, that not enough people in Singapore have downloaded the national contact tracing app TraceTogether.

Said Mr Shanmugam: "There are individual rights of privacy, but if you don't take care and cannot actively contact trace... the healthcare worker who has to take care of you is at risk. You're putting other people at risk. You're potentially overwhelming the healthcare system. You're possibly denying proper healthcare to others who have been more responsible than you have been.

"If you weigh all of this, I think it comes down on the side of contact tracing, probably with the kind of app that resides in your phone," he said.

"This is one of those situations where I think people will be prepared, if it's properly explained that the healthcare concerns are significant and should take priority."

About one in six people have downloaded the TraceTogether app in Singapore. But at least three quarters of the population should have the app installed for it to be effective, said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong on Friday.

Countries around the world are building or using contact tracing apps, but adoption rates and rollout speeds have varied. Some like South Korea use the app widely, while others in Europe like France have held back so far over privacy concerns.

At Friday's discussion, former deputy mayor for New York City and former Bloomberg chief executive Dan Doctoroff said that as long as governments were honest about how data was being collected and used, privacy concerns should not be an insurmountable problem.

"The most important thing is to do the minimum necessary to invade people's privacy, to be very clear and transparent about how data is being used. And ultimately, to make the case that the benefits significantly outweigh the costs," said Mr Doctoroff, who with Google co-founded a technology startup focusing on improving city living.

Said Mr Shanmugam: "There's nothing that any app like this will find that tech platforms don't already know about you."

Mr Doctoroff and Mr Shanmugam also discussed other challenges faced by cities, including keeping patients in isolation amid a space crunch, and how cities, commutes, and workplaces would be transformed in the wake of the pandemic.

States across the United States are ramping up their contact tracing capabilities, but with a preference for manual tracing done by paid staff. Although tech giants are working on apps, they are unlikely to be embraced as widely as in other countries.

A poll by the Washington Post and University of Maryland this week found that nearly 60 per cent of Americans are not willing to use a smartphone app that would inform users if they were in contact with a Covid-19 patient.

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