The federal government is planning to roll out a new contact tracing app for smart phones. At present, this app is only set up for Ontario. (Pexels photo)

COLUMN: Using technology to slow the spread of COVID-19

A newly developed national app has the potential to help in the fight against the pandemic

A new COVID-19 contact tracing app, rolled out in Ontario and planned for introduction across Canada, could play a role in slowing the spread of the pandemic.

The COVID Alert app for smart phones was introduced recently and is being touted as a way to help determine who may be at risk for the disease.

The app uses Bluetooth technology to determine when one user is in close proximity with another who is also using the app. If one of the users has recently tested positive for COVID-19, all other app users who were nearby will receive a confirmation alert.

This is not the first time a country has worked to use technology in an effort to slow or stop the spread of the pandemic.

When China was first dealing with the virus, government-installed CCTV cameras were pointed at the doors of those under a 14-day quarantine to ensure they did not leave their homes.

In Hong Kong, some residents were made to wear a wristband, connected to a smart phone app, to ensure they stayed in their places of quarantine.

Singapore used drones to enforce physical distancing measures.

In Poland, the government has mandated the use of an app for anyone potentially infected with COVID-19. The app involves people uploading selfies when prompted, so officials can pinpoint their locations.

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Proponents of such arguably invasive strategies would say the threat of COVID-19 is too serious for voluntary measures.

This is a disease which has already infected 20 million people and claimed more than 700,000 lives worldwide. Most days, more than 270,000 new cases are being recorded worldwide.

And the countries taking more heavy-handed initiatives have had some success in slowing the spread of this pandemic.

Canada’s approach with the COVID Alert app is not nearly as intrusive as the measures taken elsewhere.

Downloading and using the app is voluntary, not mandatory, and the app does not collect information on a user’s location. Instead, it only monitors whether someone has come in close contact with another app user who has tested positive for the disease.

We have had a lot of freedom during this pandemic. Still, there are some will feel uncomfortable downloading a tracking app from the federal government, citing concerns about privacy.

Others, who believe the risks of this disease have been exaggerated or that COVID-19 is simply a hoax, are also unlikely to download a contact tracker.

This means those who will download and use the app will be the ones who care about stopping or slowing the spread of this pandemic. And these are the people who are most likely to be careful when out in public, with or without an app.

If significant numbers of people do not use the app, will it be effective?

In recent weeks, the number of new COVID-19 cases in British Columbia has started to increase.

And while our numbers remain low, a jump in new cases is cause for concern.

If we want to continue to enjoy our freedoms during this pandemic, it will require us all to take responsibility and do our part to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

This means following the protocols already in place, practising physical distancing and staying at home when sick.

It may also mean downloading and using a tracking app as another tool in the fight against the virus.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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