The development of COVID-19 apps, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; are mobile software applications that use digital contact tracing. It has enabled governments and their people to better identify and track individuals who may have come into close contact with an infected individual. Given the emergence of COVID-19 apps, it is currently synonymous with digital contact tracing, however, if future diseases emerge then digital contact tracing will be distinguished separately. Consequently, the moral and ethical implications of such applications and its immediate impact in dealing with the crisis is the purpose of this paper. Its impact at a macro and micro level; on business, politics, family, and health have all benefitted from digital contact tracing.
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To begin with, contact tracing is fundamental in controlling the spread of an infectious disease. The Coronavirus is hurting the global economy; public and private institutions are reassessing how to operate, schools and businesses are trying to keep workers safe by using online chat services for video conferencing, all to minimize unnecessary contact to help prevent the spread of the disease. Unfortunately, not everyone can maintain physical distances since many jobs require workers to work alongside one another. A strong example of this are health workers such as doctors and nurses who are regularly in close contact with patients. They have to be in order to treat them but the recent explosion of infected cases along with reused equipment like masks are putting health workers in a precarious position. The mass adoption of digital contact tracing by people help to inform individuals and officials of when individuals have come in contact with an infected person. One-way digital contact tracing helps control the spread of the disease is that knowing whose infected helps identify where it has most likely spread too, then measures can be taken to quarantine and treat infected individuals. In summation, it prevents people from unwittingly spreading it those most at risk.
Limitations of traditional contact tracing
There are two prominent types of contact tracing being traditional and digital. Traditional contact tracing works by interviewing those who are infected; then identifying people they may have come in contact with to help monitor and treat the disease. The process requires an immense amount of labor and time by which you identify infected individuals, question them on their whereabouts and who they’ve met, then repeat the process by testing if the contacted individual is infected. This process is prone to error given that the ability to communicate vital information is slowed by physical limitations. It is also important to note that false positives and delays in notifying the public can be the difference between small and contained cases of infected versus an exponentially large outbreak.
Regarding traditional contact tracing, it was successful in monitoring Ebola infections, however, COVID-19 is believed to have a shorter serial interval spanning from 4 to 5 days. Traditional contact tracing is less effective in monitoring and controlling the Coronavirus because the time between exposure and observed symptoms is unlike previous diseases. The lack of information known about the Coronavirus and the disease’s ability to quickly spread has shifted how countries seek to deal with the crisis, going from traditional to digital contact tracing.
How COVID-19 apps work & Why it is better than traditional tracing
Digital contact tracing is meant to utilize electronics that can store and communicate information regarding infected persons quicker than the traditional method. Examples of electronic technologies that can use digital tracing include smartphones and smartwatches. By utilizing COVID-19 apps governments and health officials can address the limitations of traditional tracing to quickly notify the population. The perceived benefits of COVID-19 apps are increased effectiveness and efficiency.
Limitations of COVID-19 apps
A limitation of digital contact tracing is the dependence upon the population to adopt COVID-19 apps, all to better monitor the spread of diseases. If more people adopt standardized COVID-19 apps then tracing will be more accurate as more information can be collected and analyzed. However, the minimum needed adoption rate by the population to be effective is stated to be 60%. The believed adoption rate has contributed to the decision of governments to mandate the use of COVID-19 apps and surveillance. Because mandated participation requires the entire population to participate it is extremely effective in monitoring and controlling the spread of the Coronavirus and similar diseases. In conjugation with COVID-19 apps, governments have employed surveillance by using security footage to track a person’s movements and whereabouts. This type of required participation has been contentious for several reasons. The general concern is over privacy and consumer data being collected by governments and companies. This has slowed the adoption by citizens.
The alternative is voluntary participation which employs location-based tracing to monitor the spread of the disease. Voluntary participation allows users to opt-in and location-based tracing uses Bluetooth, barcoding, Wi-Fi signaling, or Global Positioning. While there are benefits to location-based training each is accompanied by its own problems and concerns. For instance, Bluetooth is prone to issues of accuracy as reported distances between two people fluctuate with object interference. Another concern over the efficiency of COVID-19 apps is the hardware being used. It is recommended that phones older than 3-5 years be replaced to be considered reliable since smartphones stop receiving system updates after a few years. This has resulted in concerns over e-waste because electronics with older hardware have to be replaced to reduce the chances of error such as false positives. People in infected areas that cannot acquire the latest smartphones cannot rely on digital contact tracing.
Concerns over COVID-19 apps
Digital contact tracing has raised concerns over privacy and surveillance as governments, corporations, and app administrators can use this situation to excuse their behaviors and taper over ethical concerns on monetizing personal information or categorizing citizens for political gain. In response, well-known companies such as Google and Apple developed a plan named Exposure Notification (ENF) which is solely designed to address the Coronavirus. The plan has been reviewed and well received by various organizations and groups concerned about privacy and security issues. A counter-argument to relying on voluntary participation is that in cases where governments have not mandated participation for citizens, digital tracing in Singapore currently had an adoption rate below 30%. Furthermore, digital tracing apps were said to be underused, which drastically impacts the effectiveness of the COVID-19 apps.
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Lastly is the lack of scientific evidence supporting the premise that this type of contact tracing can stop transmission. Although countries have financed institutions and programs to deal with diseases the coronavirus has impacted the global economy like no other pandemic. Many disease control centers lacked funding and governments lacked resources to resolve issues that the coronavirus brought on. Up until this point the need for COVID-19 apps were minuscule, and now governments and companies are starting to research the effectiveness of these apps. But research and testing will take years before there is universal acceptance of what results. Because of the situation, people and their governments are hypothesizing that COVID-19 apps are successful in controlling the Coronavirus.
The benefits and consequences associated with COVID-19 apps are glaring, during a time when the need for information and resources are dire, countries must consider the use of digital contact tracing in controlling the Coronavirus. COVID-19 apps and digital contact tracing have allowed humanity to reassess how they can and should tackle diseases. COVID-19 apps have created real discussions over how to proceed with this type of technology and digital contact tracing presents issues of collecting private information. However, with increased research, testing, and the correct use of digital contact tracing; Covid-19 apps will help control and stop the spread of the coronavirus and future infectious diseases.
Kleinman, R., & Merkel, C. (2020, June 15). Digital contact tracing for COVID-19. Retrieved July 09, 2020, from https://www.cmaj.ca/content/192/24/E653
The Coronavirus App. (n.d.). Retrieved July 09, 2020, from https://coronavirus.app/map
Friedman, T. (2020, May 30). How We Broke the World. Retrieved July 09, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/30/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-globalization.html
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