Michael Korjen, Head of Technology Practice, MENA, Hill+Knowlton Strategies
Michael Korjen, Head of Technology Practice, MENA, Hill+Knowlton Strategies Image Credit: Supplied

Technology is at the forefront of the response to the health, economic, educational and social challenges posed by Covid-19. Around the world, digital solutions have been deployed at such a rate we are experiencing three years of digital transformation in the space of three months.

In the absence of a vaccine, possibly the most important – and most contentious – technology application in the fight against Covid-19 is in the field of contact tracing.

Pressure continues to mount to restart business without a vaccine and contact tracing has become an essential element to our safe return to normal.

This first pandemic of the digital age has seen various technology solutions created to tackle the outbreak, with the two primary approaches for contact tracing based on either nation-wide adoption of a universal app, or customer management platforms implemented at the point of entry with businesses. Although tech has stepped up with solutions, the execution has not always been as hoped – especially with the application of nation-wide contact tracing.

Technical problems have hit some apps, while privacy concerns and general apathy have hindered public uptake. When some people are resistant to the idea of wearing a mask, getting them to download an app that tracks that their movement is a tough sell. It’s this point where mass awareness and education campaigns are critical to support the rollout of these technology solutions and effectively encourage the public of why these steps are necessary.

In my home country of Australia, the government’s COVIDSafe app has failed spectacularly – the technology behind the app doesn’t work properly, and reports emerged that no one diagnosed with the virus had even downloaded the app. This is despite the fact the Australian government implemented a AUD$60 million advertising campaign for its entire COVIDSafe strategy.

The situation in Australia has even seen medical staff forced to rely on pen and paper registers of guests that venues like hotels and bars are obliged to keep by law. This meant that the ability to effectively contain an outbreak could hinge on something as simple as whether you can read someone’s handwriting or not. Australia’s COVIDSafe app has since been described by one politician as a “$2 million dud.”

Other countries have also experienced issues with contact tracing apps. The UK government was working on an app from early March, but after several months of issues, the project was abandoned.

The UK switched from its own platform to one based on technology developed by Google and Apple. In countries which have been able to create apps based on this approach, such as Ireland and Germany, there are still concerns that not enough people have downloaded the app to make it effective, and there are questions about the reliability of Bluetooth as a measure of range.

In many countries, governments are mandating that businesses collect contact details from customers to enable medical authorities to effectively track the spread of infection.

In New York for example, the government has hired 3,000 contact tracing staff to find anyone who has encountered people who test positive for Covid-19. Statistics from the first month of the program indicate they are often unable to locate people or gather accurate information, with only 35 percent of cases yielding information about close contacts.

Concerns about the obligations of restaurants and cafes to accurately track their patrons spurred Australian technology entrepreneur Adrian Kinderis to build and deploy GuestCheck, a customer check-in management and validation system, to more than 500 venues across the country.

“We built GuestCheck to provide businesses with an effective way to meet their obligations under the government regulations. With the ease of a simple text message, GuestCheck can validate a customer’s contact details when they enter a venue, and securely store the data while indemnifying venues against privacy law breaches,” Mr Kinderis said.

A survey of 1,500 Australians conducted by Pollfish for GuestCheck found one in 10 people are purposefully providing incorrect or incomplete details to venues due to concerns about privacy.

“We’ve seen fly-by-night operators reopening businesses using flawed pen and paper solutions to capture customer details. Not only is there a risk of contamination there is also a great risk of information being incorrect either by human error or deliberate act.”

In a similar approach to GuestCheck, the Thai government has focused on businesses rather than a national contact tracing app. In May, the Thailand Ministry of Public Health introduced the "Thai Chana" customer check-in platform to allow shopping malls and businesses to reopen. As of June, the Thai Chana platform had accumulated more than 24 million users and more than 110 million check-ins.

Kinderis said contact tracing would be more effective if approached from a bottom-up, rather than top-down approach from governments.

"You can’t mandate country-wide adoption of a contact tracing app. No matter how effective the app is, if you can’t force 100% of the population to turn the app on, then it won’t be effective. What you can do is put the onus on the businesses and the customers to do the right thing and give contact tracing investigators the data they need to do their role effectively.”

The situation highlights that while fast moving, agile technology companies can create solutions, managing the threat of Covid-19 requires a coordinated response with public and private sector engagement, and widespread public support through education and awareness campaigns.

Now, with second waves of Covid-19 infection being reported around the world, the need for a practical solution to automated contact tracing is even more pressing. Technologies, like those used in a customer management platform for contact tracing, are the new essential service we must support and invest in if we are to manage our way through this pandemic and the inevitable next pandemic to come.

 - The writer is the Head of Technology Practice, MENA, Hill+Knowlton Strategies