Until a few days ago, Jemin, a strong supporter of the government, was a happy and worry-free person. One fine day, his sense of well being was shattered when the Aarogya Setu app on his mobile began to show him positive for coronavirus (COVID-19) and he started receiving calls. Jemin says he has no symptoms for COVID-19, nor has he undergone any test for the virus. Yet, he is now labelled as COVID-19 +ve on the app and all the people near him are receiving alerts. On trying to find out what when wrong, he discovered that someone called Shibu had wrongly used his mobile number while undergoing COVID-19 test in a lab (which came positive), which subsequently got linked to the app installed on his mobile. He then started an effort to set things right, but nothing has worked so far.
What is more stunning is when Jemin wanted to rectify the error, he found there was no easy option. When he contacted Aarogya Setu on Twitter, he was told to find out their email ID and send a mail. He did that but till the writing of this story, his status on Aarogya Setu remains positive for COVID-19.
He was informed by the app that his mobile number was entered from a lab run by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and hence the rectification had to be done either by the lab or ICMR only.
When he first installed the app and filled in his details, he received a one-time passcode (OTP) to confirm his mobile number. However, when the ‘Shibu’ used Jemin’s mobile number for the lab test, Jemin had no control over it or he did not receive any alert. This resulted in Jemin’s mobile number attached with the app marking him in ‘Red’ meaning he is 100% COVID-19 positive.
In second case, Sanvi (name changed to protect identity) one of my former colleagues, at an organisation where I worked previously, faces a similar issue. She has entered her mobile number while filling the hospital admission form for her father, who tested +ve for COVID-19. The form had a provision for either self or family member's number and she had provided her number as the family contact number. But instead of showing her as exposed to COVID-19 with orange colour badge, at best, the app was treating her as that of a COVID-19 patient (red badge) based on the data was submitted to the authorities. So, her status on the Aarogya Setu app turned red leading to her nearby contacts finding orange or yellow badges for alerts on their Aarogya Setu app after she visited the office around a week ago. Naturally, they were worried and after some probing discovered how a listing on a hospital form had created entry on the app leading to panic alerts.
At present both, Sanvi and her mother are home quarantined. Neither she nor her mother have any symptoms of corona and her family doctor as well as doctors at the hospital have told that at present there is no need for them to undergo any tests, she told me. However, she says she is meeting the doctor again to get a prescription for the tests for herself and her mother so that she can be real sure about her status.
So far so good. While in Jemin's case it was apparently false alert since ‘Shibu’ had used his mobile number for COVID-19 test, in the second case, those receiving the alert came to know that it was a probably a false alert and that they have nothing to worry about.
Aarogya Setu Colour Codes
• Red Colour on Aarogya Setu app signifies that the person is COVID-19 positive. "This status is updated only after testing based on data entered by the testing labs," the app says.
• Orange Colour on your Aarogya Setu app signifies that high risk of infection based on self- assessment or high risk of infection due to recent Bluetooth contact with COVID-19 positive person at near distance.
• While yellow Colour on the app means, there is moderate risk of infection based on self- assessment or moderate risk of infection due to recent Bluetooth contact with COVID-19 positive person.
• Green colour on your the app means the user is safe, there is low risk of infection based on self-assessment and low risk of infection and recent contact with a COVID-19 positive person but at a distance or for a short duration.
The basic question is, how can only a mobile number, either right or wrong, be used by the Aarogya Setu app to decide the COVID-19 status, mainly red badge for the person. Also, why can’t the hospital segregate mobile numbers of the patient and his/her family members while sharing the data? Why is only the mobile number is used as the sole criteria for determining the COVID-19 status of a person when other details like names and addresses are easily available with hospitals and testing labs? No easy answers.
Fundamentally, contact tracing works by tracking down all the contacts of an infected person and then taking appropriate action to break the chain of transmission.
In the current COVID-19 pandemic, when a patient gets a coronavirus test done, the lab should send the +ve results back to the patient’s doctor, who had prescribed the test as well as to the health department from the local civic body. Then a contact tracer should be assigned to the case, who would call the person to ask about symptoms, take down information about people the patient has been in close contact with recently, and to help draw up a plan for isolation, either at home or at designated places.
Remember, the spike in COVID-19 cases at Dharavi in Mumbai came under control through screening efforts of general practitioners (GPs) in that area.
Here there was either no role or minimum role played by contract tracing through the Aarogya Setu app. A report from Mumbai Mirror says
, "An army of 350 general practitioners helped Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s biggest hotspots, stave off the coronavirus by screening thousands of people at their clinics. The area has reported a steep decline in the daily number of cases over the past month, with the doubling rate falling to once every 140 days from once every 18 days in April. Dharavi reported only 16 new Covid-19 cases on Friday. A total of 2,232 people have tested positive there until now."
"Of these 1,118 have recovered and been discharged. Another 11,986 identified as close contacts have been placed under quarantine. A total of 79 deaths have been reported. Earlier this week, the ministry of health and family welfare applauded the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corp (BMC) for its efforts in containing the virus in the slum, which is spread across 2.5 square km and has a population of 6.5 lakh," the report says.
This laudable effort from Dharavi also highlights the importance of screening and testing of everyone, and not to focus on contact tracing alone through an app.
Coming back to Aarogya Setu, while many have raised concerns about privacy violations due to this app, several experts from across the world are questioning the viability and practical use of what is seen as a ‘golden app pill’ for dealing with COVID-19.
Such apps are capable of providing several false negatives as well as false positives, making its use very questionable in the fight against the pandemic.
According to Jason Bay, the product lead for TraceTogether, the world’s first nationwide Bluetooth contact tracing system, false positives and false negatives have real-life (and death) consequences as there are lives at stake.
"If you ask me whether any Bluetooth contact tracing system deployed or under development, anywhere in the world, is ready to replace manual contact tracing, I will say without qualification that the answer is, No. Not now and, even with the benefit of artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) and — God forbid — the much touted blockchain not for the foreseeable future," he says in a blog post
Bruce Schneier, a privacy expert and fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University is more forthright on contact tracing apps. In a blogpost he
says, "The idea that contact tracing can be done with an app, and not human health professionals, is just plain dumb."
"Assume you take the app out grocery shopping with you and it subsequently alerts you of a contact. What should you do? It is not accurate enough for you to quarantine yourself for two weeks? And without ubiquitous, cheap, fast, and accurate testing, you cannot confirm the app's diagnosis. So, the alert is useless. Similarly, assume you take the app out grocery shopping and it does not alert you of any contact. Are you in the clear? No, you are not. You actually have no idea if you have been infected. The end result is an app that does not work. People will post their bad experiences on social media, and people will read those posts and realize that the app is not to be trusted. That loss of trust is even worse than having no app at all," says Mr Schneier, a public-interest technologist.
According to the description provided by Aarogya Setu on Google play store, "the app tracks, through a Bluetooth and GPS generated social graph, your interaction with someone who could have tested COVID-19 positive."
However, Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, has raised questions over whether Bluetooth-based contact tracing technology can be adopted on a broad and meaningful scale worldwide. In an interaction with MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory director Daniela Rus, Mr Smith expressed scepticism about this technology being adopted on a meaningful scale.
"Not everyone is going to walk around with an app on their phone. I think we should recognise that it is a tool, and not a panacea," Mr Smith was quoted as saying in the virtual discussion.
As I mentioned above, a mobile number added wrongly or by mistake can also lead to panic through the Aarogya Setu app. And there is no easy way out from this to remove your mobile number wrongly entered into the app data.
So, while some users are appreciating the phone calls from the app checking their wellbeing, there are others who are struggling to remove their wrongly fed mobile number from the app.
The final word is, you do not need an app to tell you who will be infected with corona virus. In a country with a huge population and little space for physical distancing, chances are that everyone may be infected. If not combined with testing, and testing and more testing, these contact tracing apps like Aarogya Setu are bound to remain elusive at best.
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