May 21, 2020

MACRO: The politics of contact tracing

BY Teneo Macro, Luis Cornago

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In this piece, we summarize the politics surrounding the contact tracing strategies of selected governments (please click on ‘View PDF’ below to see a summary table).

As countries exit from lockdowns and ease restrictions, contact tracing – identifying persons who could have been in contact with confirmed Covid-19 cases – could help to avoid second outbreaks. Mobile contact tracing apps might play an important role in this regard, together with manual contact tracing through interviews by public health officials. For this to be effective, however, a high testing capacity is also necessary. In the absence of a vaccine, a successful “test, track and trace” strategy might be the only possibility to reactivate the economy and restart social life, at least partially.

However, contact tracing and testing capacity vary by country, as do the political and logistical challenges that governments face. Contact tracing apps are already widely used in Asian countries such as China, India and South Korea. Some European countries are also aiming to roll them out between May and June. That is the case in Germany, Italy, France and the UK.

The efficacy of such apps has yet to be established, however. First, privacy concerns have risen not only in developed economies but also in India and Turkey, where distrust towards public authorities may deter people from downloading contact-tracing apps. Second, the apps’ effectiveness will depend on how many citizens agree to download them – experts suggest that these are only effective if at least 60% of people in a given population use them. In addition, tracing the elderly through these apps is particularly challenging given their lower ownership of mobile-internet subscriptions.

Human contact tracers will also be vital in the deescalation phase. In fact, apps tend to complement human contact-tracing efforts – this has been the case in South Korea and China. Countries are often less transparent about the number of manual contact tracers, although many governments seem to be increasingly aware of their importance (e.g. France, United Kingdom, Spain).

More worryingly, in Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia – three countries that have started to ease lockdowns without having the pandemic under control – the number of human contact tracers is still limited or unknown. In South Africa and Nigeria, where contact tracing apps are logistically not viable, human contact tracing is crucial to the governments’ strategy; community health workers have been on the frontline as manual contact tracers for years in these two countries, dealing with other diseases or epidemics.

Lastly, testing capacity has been ramped up in most countries since the beginning of the outbreaks. However, it is still lagging in many countries. There are still places where only those with symptoms and meeting specific criteria – admitted to hospital, came into contact with a known case, returned from overseas – are tested (please click on ‘View PDF’ below to see the summary table.)

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