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Contact tracing, explained

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With a relaxation of lockdown measures in some parts of the country, efforts to step up contact tracing take on a heightened importance.

Contact tracing is considered a key element of the fight against COVID-19, the disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome 2 (commonly referred to simply as the coronavirus). An app sponsored by the Government will be used as part of contact tracing efforts, as lockdown restrictions are relaxed in some areas of the country. 

Last week, an extension of the lockdown imposed in India since late March as a response to COVID-19 was announced by the Government. However, some areas of the country classified as ‘orange zones’ and ‘green zones’ depending on their COVID-19 caseload saw “considerable relaxations.” 

As defined by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, “the Green Zones will be districts with either zero confirmed cases till date; or, no confirmed case in the last 21 days. The classification of districts as Red Zones will take into account the total number of active cases, doubling rate of confirmed cases, extent of testing and surveillance feedback from the districts. Those districts, which are neither defined as Red nor Green, shall be classified as Orange zones.” 

With some restrictions loosened, contact tracing has become important. Aarogya Setu – a Bluetooth based global position system  app – will now be compulsory for workers irrespective of whether they are employed in the public or private sector. It is the responsibility of individual companies and employers to enforce registration among their employees with the app. Coverage must be at least 200 million-strong among India’s population of more than 1.3 billion for the app to be effective, according to experts. Around fifty million downloads have been made through Android. 

The decision has ignited privacy concerns. Former Indian National Congress President Rahul Gandhi said “the Aarogya Setu app, is a sophisticated surveillance system, outsourced to a [private] operator, with no institutional oversight—raising serious data security and privacy concerns. Technology can help keep us safe; but fear must not be leveraged to track citizens without their consent.” However, the Government maintains that the app is “only for administering necessary medical interventions.” 

Contact tracing forms a crucial plank of countries’ response to COVID-19. As explained by the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the key concepts of contact tracing are to “trace and monitor contacts of infected people. Notify them of their exposure; support the quarantine of contacts; help ensure the safe, sustainable and effective quarantine of contacts to prevent additional transmission; expand staffing resources…Use digital tools. Adoption and evaluation of digital tools may expand [the] reach and efficacy of contact tracers.”

Contact tracing has been a part of the Indian Government’s strategy since the early days of the COVID-19 crisis. Last month, Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan interacted with the directors of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Research and the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research. Afterwards, he tweeted “praising our contact tracing & surveillance systems, I noted that we have been mapping the [coronavirus] cases well, starting from patients, houses, blocks to districts.”

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