Technologies to Control COVID-19 Around the World

By Anthony de Freitas Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has tested the world’s resilience in many ways. The biopharmaceutical and technological sectors have mostly passed with flying colors. It took less than a year for a vaccine to emerge, and a range of technologies were either developed or deployed to combat the spread of the pestilence. Though robust in some countries (notably those in Asia), the response has been less-than-ideal in the West. The results reflect the vigor of that response. While 30 people had died from COVID-19 in Singapore as of March 16, 2021 (about five deaths for every one million residents), the COVID-19 death toll in the US at the same time exceeded 537,639 — over 1,400 deaths per one million residents.

Digital technology has been thrown into the battle against the coronavirus on many fronts. It has provided tools for screening and early detection of the infected, testing, contact tracing, and enforcing quarantine and isolation. The countries utilizing these tools most effectively have been able to contain public health breakdowns to a remarkable degree.

Hand holding tablet projecting coronavirus in front of a world map.

Singapore Leads the Way

In Singapore, the authorities have risen to the occasion, bringing with them experience acquired in similar calamities such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis of 2003. Furthermore, the island state has engaged its formidable law enforcement capabilities in the battle to contain the spread of the virus and mitigate its effects, which hasn’t gone unnoticed. One headline declared that Singapore's Nanny State Has Gotten Stricter Thanks to COVID.

The student body, which has been the source of many index cases in America, is strictly monitored. Student gatherings are restricted, and several times during the day, students must take and report their temperature using a mobile app. The general population is subjected to similar measures. Extensive testing was and is being carried out, and contact tracing — tracking down those who have had contact with an infected person — is forcibly pursued. For example, grocery shoppers are required to scan their NRIC for entry in support of contact tracing purposes. (The National Registration Identity Card (NRIC) is a compulsory identity document issued to citizens and permanent residents of Singapore.) The general public has already become used to hand-held scanners that check their temperatures before being admitted to many places.

Contact Tracing to Interrupt Virus Transmission

In March 2020, as the pandemic raged at home and abroad, Singapore’s Government Technical Agency (GovTech) launched a contact tracing app. The app sends and receives Bluetooth transmissions between mobile phones to determine how close someone has been to an infected person, thus recording a person’s close contacts in real time.

Another GovTech initiative is called TraceTogether. Singaporeans could either download an app to their smartphones or wear a physical TraceTogether token. TraceTogether also relies on Bluetooth communication. When two users come within 30 feet or so of each other, their phones exchange anonymized and encrypted user IDs. Should one person test positive for COVID-19, the Ministry of Health can decrypt the IDs in order to identify all those who may be at risk.

In May 2020, all businesses, public spaces, and places of worship had to institute digital check-in systems that could flag infected persons and help with tracking their movements. In April 2020, the WhatsApp channel reminded Singaporeans to always have their NRICs or other forms of photo ID. These carry a barcode that can be scanned for entry to public areas. The system, known as SafeEntry, allows businesses and organizations to check-in visitors quickly. Visitors gain entry by scanning their official photo ID or a unique QR code at places they visit. If somebody tests positive, contact tracers use the information to track down those who got close enough to be potentially infected.

Often, when a new case was detected, the authorities could trace the transmission chain from one person to another using a database with the public’s contact information. The infected person would be quizzed about their contacts, with gaps in their reports filled in with data from CCTV footage and travel records. Existing technologies are also being used to monitor people in quarantine or isolation. They receive text messages at various times of the day and are required to give an update with GPS on their mobile phone. Getting a phone call means further scrutiny. They’ll have to send photos of their surroundings to verify exactly where they are.

COVID-19 Dashboards

Tracking the spread of contagion both within and across borders has been a linchpin of efforts to contain the virus. This has given rise to “dashboards” that quickly provide case data in geographical detail. Perhaps the best known of these dashboards, certainly in the US, is the one at John Hopkins University of Medicine, said to have been visited “over 200 million times with visitors from nearly every country in the world.” The World Health Organization (WHO) also maintains a map-based dashboard that shows the location and indicates the relative size of outbreaks.

Singapore has been relying on the dashboard created by Upcode Academy, which employs Singapore Ministry of Health data to display total cases, active cases, and clusters, as well as the number of deceased and those who appear to have recovered. The data is further broken down by nationality, age, gender, and source of infection. The dashboard also calculates the average recovery time from COVID-19 and shows a timeline for cases across the region since January.

From Wuhan to Across the World

China, where the crisis first emerged, turned to big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to build models that might predict the future course of contagion. Authorities there used data collected from mobile phones, mobile payment applications, and social media to track the movement of people in real time. These tools allowed the Chinese authorities to track visitor movement to the Wuhan market, the pandemic's epicenter, and their subsequent whereabouts.

Novel solutions have also emerged in other countries. In general, rather than being new special-purpose tools, many of these solutions are adaptations of already existing technologies. In Thailand, for example, technology that checks your temperature, as well as if you’re wearing a mask has been deployed in malls and other shopping centers. Scientists attached to Thailand’s National Science and Technology Development Agency have created µTherm-FaceSense, a temperature-screening system that can simultaneously examine up to nine people. In South Africa, a software tool developed to flag hotspots of rhinoceros poaching has been modified to trace and track individuals who have tested positive.

South Korea has also used existing technologies in imaginative ways. Systems developed to combat tax fraud have now been put into service to stem the tide of the virus. The authorities are using the huge amount of data they have trawled to track tax dodgers for contact tracing. By using a combination of electronic transaction data, mobile phone location logs, and surveillance camera footage, authorities can quickly identify and contact anyone who has come close to an infected person or has been themselves infected.

In terms of response, Singapore is the touchstone. No other country appears to have gone to the lengths the city-state has to combat the pandemic. It’s no surprise then that a study jointly sponsored by Yale and the British Medical Journal compared the responses of the southeastern nation to others, citing its “historically… very strong epidemiological surveillance and contact-tracing capacity and [its demonstration] in the COVID-19 epidemic evidence of a high sensitivity of case detection.” The researchers estimated that, on average, the global ability to detect imported cases is just 38% of Singapore’s capacity.

Regardless of the actual response, public perception varied considerably. A ranking of 19 countries, using a scoring methodology blessed by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health and the City University of New York (CUNY), put Singapore in seventh place. China emerged top of the list, with South Korea second and South Africa third. The US placed ninth; the UK was 12th.

Public perceptions mirrored the severity of the health impact, as measured by COVID-19 death rates, closely. The exception was Singapore, which, despite a death rate of 0.53 per 100,000 residents, ranked seventh in the public perception survey. Researchers suggest a reason. Country scores, they say, were strongly tied to the level of public trust in the government, with higher scores reflecting higher levels of trust. But if that is so, Singapore should have ranked higher. The annual Trust Barometer operated by global communications firm Edelman has consistently ranked Singapore in the highest categories. In June 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the Singapore government’s trust rating actually rose three percentage points to 70%.

Two other factors may have affected the degree of success that official responses have had, as well as its public perception: the system of government and culture. Overall, country response appears to have been more effective in countries where there is a more autocratic approach to government, greater respect and deference given to authority, and greater discipline in observing social rules. In the UK and the US, where these qualities are notably lacking, measures to contain the pandemic have been less successful. Indeed, to a certain degree, they have been mocked, resisted, and attacked.

Freedom Fighters Impede Efforts to Contain Transmission

The detractors of measures to slow or stop the spread of contagions, such as social distancing and the wearing of masks, say they are flying the flag of freedom. Coupled with a general distrust of government, this high regard for individualism is thought to have been a major impediment in containment. In other countries, concern has been more directed to the security and privacy of the data being collected by authorities and the use to which it is put. In Singapore, for instance, in a reversal from previous assurances, the government has admitted that data collected from its COVID contact tracing program will be made accessible to police. At its launch, it had been said that the data would be used only for virus-related purposes.

Now that vaccines for COVID-19 have become available, technological solutions to contain the spread of the coronavirus may have become less critical. Rather than being unique, many of them were simply existing technologies refashioned for coronavirus-related purposes. They will, no doubt, be called into service once again if another pandemic strikes. Despite a fatalistic foreboding that the next one is inevitable, happily, there is no certainty of that.

About the Author

Headshot of Anthony de Freitas

Anthony is the owner of Kip Art Gifts, an ecommerce store that specializes in art-inspired jewelry, fashion accessories, and other objects. Previously, he worked as an accountant and financial analyst. He enjoys writing on small business, financial intermediation, and economics. Anthony was educated at Wilson’s School and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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