Fighting Covid: Need to expand Aarogya Setu to make it better

By: |
May 2, 2020 2:10 AM

It must include those quarantined as well instead of just the infected; wider testing critical if the app has to work.

While the app cannot be used to apply for an e-pass as of now, the government has launched an online website for e-pass facility.

Given how the Aarogya Setu numbers have galloped—the app has recorded over 7.5 million downloads—the government incorporating more features like e-passes bodes well for the service. It will help logistics firms and delivery personnel to have a QR code in the app, which can be scanned by the police to check their validity. This is undoubtedly better than using paper documentation as it minimises the risk of forgery, and also keeps track of trucks/vans moving goods. Most important, it allows for faster contact-tracing if any person in the supply chain is infected. Had the pizza-delivery person in South Delhi, who was found to be Covid-19 positive later, been using this app, it would have been a lot faster for the government to conduct contact-tracing, instead of summoning the restaurant to furnish records.

While the app cannot be used to apply for an e-pass as of now, the government has launched an online website for e-pass facility where service providers can apply. However, once states lift the lockdown in a graded manner, it would be better if such services are also provided via the app to create an all-purpose solution.

But, 7.5 million is still quite low when compared to total smartphone user-base of 300 million. If the app is to really be helpful, the government will need to push harder. Experts have said that nearly two-thirds of the population will need to download the app if contact tracing is to be effective. While the home ministry order of April 15 has asked employers in establishments to urge their employees to download the app and, on April 29, the government issued a notification that all central government employees will have to mandatorily download the app, the government would do well to more publicly address the concerns about how privacy is going to be maintained; the government also needs to add more features—like the e-pass—that will make people want to use the app.

A user’s test results, for instance, could be delivered on the app; a heat map can show where quarantined persons are, and, indeed now that even the mildly infected are to be treated at home, the app should warn people if those who are to be quarantined are breaking the rules. A dashboard which shows alerts on new cases in an area and heat maps are critical—are your office staff living near hotspots?—as are facilities for an online consultation with doctors, details of the nearest hospital with available beds, etc; anything that is related to the novel coronavirus needs to be on Aarogya Setu.

Equally important, the country’s testing protocol needs to be made much wider for the app to be really useful. While it is true that India has had a lot less cases than several other countries, it is worrying that when 80% of those infected are supposed to be asymptomatic, the testing protocol does not allow them to be tested unless they have been in touch with an infected person. It is only when testing is ramped up in a big way—and community testing through pooled-testing is a critical part of this—that people will have enough faith in the usefulness of Aarogya Setu that it will be downloaded enough.

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