As much of the world is left reeling from fresh lockdowns to curb new strains of the novel coronavirus, debates surrounding the best way to address this pandemic resurface. After all, lockdowns are expensive. So why do countries keep reverting to such costly ways of reducing the spread of COVID-19?
In the past year, we’ve seen countries pursue a variety of different approaches to reduce the spread of the virus and roll out the vaccine. They can, however, be classified into two contrasting categories: broadly, while Western countries such as the U.K., Germany and Canada have opted to go into national lockdowns with every new wave of COVID-19, Eastern countries like Singapore and South Korea have relied more on contact tracing and selective restriction on movement. This has translated into starkly different results; countries in Asia and the Middle East have, on average, performed significantly better in containing the virus than countries in Europe and the Americas.
Security comes at a price. A fiery debate rages in the East regarding data collection and tracking movements of citizens as a measure of battling COVID-19. We must recognize that in a post-COVID globalized world, preservation of public health must be a priority, even if it comes at the expense of certain civil liberties.
In Singapore, controversies surrounding the national contact tracing measures, TraceTogether and SafeEntry, have gained traction. The TraceTogether app has seen enormous success, with over 80% of the city-state’s population voluntarily installing the app on their phones. Others, particularly the elderly, have chosen to avail free TraceTogether tokens that may be carried anywhere with them to gain entry into public places. Those who opt for neither must simply scan a QR code outside every building, restaurant or public space as a means of identifying COVID hot spots and making contact tracing easier.
These technologies are all tied to a national identification card provided to every citizen and long-term resident, making it easy for health care authorities to access an individual’s movement history and identify close contacts. The rollout of modern technology has been a tremendous achievement by simultaneously reducing the time needed for contact tracing and improving the accuracy of doing so. This has resulted in the prevention of a second wave of infections in Singapore, keeping local transmission close to zero since September.
Recently, however, Singapore’s Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan revealed that the collected data may be provided to the Singapore Police Force for criminal investigations, causing a spark of concern among citizens over the potential abuse of their data. Singapore, known for being a conservative, more authoritarian society controversially implemented these measures to combat the pandemic. Although in Singapore a large majority of people seem to voluntarily accept the trade-off between privacy and public health, this will likely not hold up in Western countries, where protests and riots against basic safety measures like lockdowns and masks have already broken out. This discrepancy can largely be attributed to Eastern societies’ more collectivist approach to life compared to Western society’s emphasis on individualistic cultures and personal liberty.
As we enter a new decade, the debate around user privacy has come to the forefront, albeit usually in the context of big tech. The role of governments is usually attributed to drafting legislation to keep user data safe from exploitation by internet companies. This new dynamic of the government actually possessing citizens’ data is a relatively new phenomenon.
The COVID-19 pandemic will cause a paradigm shift in how we define and consider our notions of privacy, much like the disruption of individual liberties after 9/11 via increased wiretapping in the name of national security.
Government agencies must strike a balance between public health interests and increased surveillance. While data collection to preserve public health can save thousands of lives, it cannot come at the price of moving us toward living in a police state. The theoretical misuse of such technologies, however, must not become a reason to entirely reject their implementation, as they are massively beneficial by allowing health agencies to identify disease outbreaks quicker and conduct research on the movement patterns of different demographics and their effects.
Ultimately, prevention is always better than the cure, and contact tracing technologies can help us not only bring the pandemic under control but also allow scientists to make significant strides in other areas as well. However, as the common adage goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and there is always a trade-off for your actions. In this case, we must be willing to redefine our notion of privacy and civil liberties and to recognize that actions that benefit the greater good of society warrant a small personal sacrifice.
Aayush Gupta (22B) is from Singapore.