Tap, Track, Trace and Test

Tackling Covid-19 through mobile apps

Countries across the world are using technology to organise, manage, prevent and track Covid-19 rates, while Nepal has fallen behind in the pandemic app race.

China, being the first country to contract Covid-19, was naturally first off the mark to launch a ‘health code’ app nationwide. Installing the app was made mandatory by the government, and while many labelled it a breach of privacy and part of China’s state surveillance system, it was also the only effective way to control the virus across a wide population.

The app directed people to stay indoors, report their travel history and share knowledge of any symptoms they may be experiencing. Each user then received a coloured QR code to indicate their infection status: red for those considered infected by the virus, yellow for those who may have come into contact with a Covid-positive person, and green code for those who seemed fine and virus-free. Public spaces could only be accessed with a green QR code, to ensure that a Covid-positive individual doesn’t enter, say, a shopping mall and endanger others.

India followed China in its contact tracing app (CTA) strategy and method when Prime Minister Modi’s office set up a committee to guide and quickly launch the ‘AarogyaSetu’ app. AarogyaSetu is Sanskrit for ‘the bridge for liberation from disease’.

It was pretty clear that the Indian government was activating a robust PR campaign around the app as soon as it was launched on both Android and iOS app stores. Indian celebrities such as national cricket captain Virat Kohli and Bollywood actor Ajay Devgn endorsed the app via video clips requesting citizens to safeguard themselves from getting infected, The app crossed 100 million downloads and broke Pokemon Go’s record of being the fastest growing app ever.

It has been one year since the app came into mandatory practice, and now airports, malls, clinics and local businesses ask Indian citizens to show their AarogyaSetu app to report their Covid status before they come into contact. As in China, the app uses the green-if-negative and red-if-positive simple colour-based communication.

The app is not based on prediction but strives for accuracy in reporting. In major cities like Mumbai, the government sends a home testing medical team to test members of households, and if their report is positive, it automatically updates their Covid status on the app, which is linked to their Aadhar Card (government-issued ID).

In the United States the federal government did not launch an official app or impose any mandatory rules to use CTAs. Instead, local governments collaborated with Apple and Google to develop regional apps relying on Bluetooth technology, but only for those who wish to use it. These apps ensure user safety by promising not to store personal information on their servers. A survey revealed that roughly 39% of US citizens supported or accepted the use of CTAs to control the pandemic, compared to a whopping 80% in China, indirectly suggesting that the Chinese have more trust in their government institutions than the Americans.

Unlike these large economies that developed quick action digital tools under tight timelines, Germany came up with the ‘Corona-Warn-App’ months later, without any rush, taking its time to tackle possible data privacy issues. The download of the German app is voluntary, and it is designed to respect people’s privacy by not permanently storing personal information.

Iceland launched its ‘Rakning C-19’ last April, being the country with the highest penetration of any CTA in the world (40% of Icelanders were adopting apps). However, the Icelandic Covid response team claimed that the app alone did not result in high impact. Manual tracing techniques like phone calls were more effective and required alongside the digital tool.

Iceland and a few other European countries have been proponents of free but responsible movement, trusting the citizens to follow guidelines without requiring hefty fines that force them to conform. Sweden, however, has flatly rejected the idea of an official tracking app, despite having more Covid-19 cases than neighbours Denmark and Finland.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and other West Asian countries have rolled out CTAs with Bluetooth tracing, but Qatar has gone a step further warning that citizens who do not cooperate and install the app may face up to three years in jail.

Bahrain set a record this year by being the first country with a CTA that allows users to book free vaccine appointments via the ‘BeAware’ app, even letting people choose between the Pfizer-BioNTech and Sinopharm vaccines. Bahrain quickly became the second mostst vaccinated country in the world after Israel.

Here in Nepal, the government launched the ‘Hamro Swasthya’ app to disseminate information about the pandemic. It is a collaboration between several IT startups and the Ministry of Health and Population to financially and technically support the government in developing an effective app.

With over 300,000 app downloads and over 5 million site views, the app offers national Covid-19 updates, but not regional or local detailed information that would help people navigate their areas smartly. There is no guarantee of data privacy or any marketing campaign launched to promote the app’s usage.

This lack of transparency and quality of software development is classic governmental mode of functioning. It is ticking the basic boxes and producing a low-cost, low-quality product that neither attracts nor engages the user with well-planned, well-designed communication.

Hamro Swasthya is available in both English and Nepali, and the top feature is the Covid self-assessment test that is a questionnaire asking the user to fill personal information along with answers to questions about symptoms faced and recent travel (note: it does not ask for domestic travel history, only international) in order to make an educated guess on whether the user has contracted the virus or not.

There is a section on plasma donation, with a form for both donors and those who require a blood donation. Another feature is the suspect report, where anybody can complain about anybody who they suspect is a Covid-positive individual. This feature is clearly not thoroughly thought out, as it can be easily misused.

There is a nationwide map to guide people to the nearest hospital, but there is plenty of room of improvement regarding the UX/UI and information provided (lack of address and phone numbers). The best sign of a good app is how often it is improved and optimised. But as the government started rolling out vaccines, information regarding availability is missing in Hamro Swasthya.

Saniaa Shah writes this fortnightly column, Tech-Away for Nepali Times. She runs Studio Aakar, a film production studio. Her marketing career helped her develop a keen interest in tech and digital culture.

Saniaa Shah