Our Western leadership has failed miserably at managing the risks of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Not one government in Europe or the Americas can claim a single success in protecting their populations not only from the pandemic but from the consequences of their botched lockdown measures. The bumbling, stumbling farce that has become our government reactions could be likened to the Keystone Kops: falling all over themselves, frenetically failing and getting up to trip once again. For my 2020 year-end review, I am cataloguing many of the KeystoneCorona crises caused by the failure of our authorities to implement basic risk management tools.
The second episode looks at how proper tracking tools have proven to be very effective in suppressing the pandemic spread in certain countries while postulating why European decision-makers failed to implement these simple tools.
South Korea, China, Thailand and Taiwan have all implemented tracking tools (and these countries have rather successfully beaten back the pandemic). “Tracking” is not tracing. It involves using tools like QR codes to record individuals accessing public sites, as well as CCTV and payment records in order to track who was exposed to superspreader events and where they went after. It is very simple: if I enter a shop or a mall, get on a bus or a train, or go into an office or a restaurant, the QR code on my phone is scanned. Should there be an exposure, the authorities will contact me and I will need to be tested and self-isolate. I cannot see any sufficient tracking strategy implemented in any Western countries.
From this real time tracking data, people can be informed if they are exposed to someone, on a bus or train, who should be self-isolating. This is the “tracing” element. But tracing without reliable tracking data is merely trying to follow who you might have been exposed to (mostly determined on a voluntary basis).
Yet even months later, Western authorities couldn’t even get the tracing right. Most Western countries, after being far too late out of the starting blocks, implemented various versions of testing and tracing systems over the summer of 2020. The US, by far the country with the largest number of victims from this coronavirus, has been the least competent in even implementing the most basic tracing systems (with only one state out of 50 producing a relatively passable system).
When I contracted COVID-19 in Belgium, I discovered how utterly useless the Belgian tracing strategy actually was. Three days after Mrs Monger tested positive for COVID-19, my Belgian Coronalert app (see image) still informed me I was in a low-risk environment even though I was sleeping beside a known infected person (who was also on the app). Followers on my social media pages also shared similar “anomalies” of this KeystoneCorona farce at its best. Maybe I kept a sufficient social distance from Mrs Monger for the Bluetooth-enabled app (her feet were very cold then).
The day after the positive test result, we got “the phone call“. Anyone in Belgium who has tested positive can’t help smiling when I ask them about “the phone call“. Some sympathetic person calls any Belgian resident who tested positive to ask if they can remember coming in contact with anyone in the last two weeks. I was waiting for 20 Keystone Kops to come rushing into my living room chasing a puppy. If you are not feeling well, upset about the test results, confused and unprepared, it might be a stretch to start naming names of every person and place you visited over a fortnight.
I suspect neither Mrs Monger nor myself provided valuable data. They didn’t even interview our children. And as this “plague” is the new syphilis, the stigma may turn this voluntary tracing approach into an ethical challenge. If we can’t impose a proper tracking system, shouldn’t our authorities be honest and tell their citizens their lives don’t matter.
Give me my Data or Give me Death
Tracking individuals who have been exposed and empowering people to reduce their risks of dying from such exposures are basic risk management tools our Western leaders have been dismally incapable of implementing. As early as February, South Korea developed tracking and tracing tools that protected their citizens. I was calling for this benchmark to be applied back in March. Why couldn’t our Western leaders, nine months later, be so competent?
Sorry, but this is a serious question. Once again, let me be clear. South Korea, China, Taiwan and Thailand have all imposed tracking systems and all of them have done rather well at containing the coronavirus spread. The once sophisticated Western countries could not. Anyone with a smart phone can read a QR code. Most 12-year-olds know how to generate them, so it is not a question of our Western leaders being technologically incapable. I suggested it must be Europe’s obsession with protecting personal data that is blocking the widespread imposition of these tools. Are social justice activists , in their fight against potential abuses of Big Data, therefore enabling a Black Death to once again sweep across Europe? This is utter madness.
If the EU personal data protection regulation is the reason Western health regulators did not bother with implementing basic tracking tools, then this implies a cavalier approach to human life.
“Oh, sorry David. I understand this tragic loss of life is very sad but we cannot violate people’s rights to privacy.”
… “Uhm, No!!! You aren’t violating their privacy. They have the right to protect their personal data simply by staying at home … which is what you are now forcing everyone to do!”
How many more people will die because our leaders are afraid to take hard decisions? In the first KeystoneCorona article, I wondered whether our authorities were not giving advice on how to strengthen immunity levels (get fitter, eat well, lose weight) because they might be accused of “fat shaming”. When decisions aren’t taken or important information is not given because we are worried about how people might feel, then we have weak, irresponsible leadership and will have to pay the price: increased death, suffering and hardship.