How effective are facemasks, app-based contact tracing?
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - June 3, 2020 - 12:00am

France in pre-COVID-19 times forbade face-covering hijab in malls, trains, parks, schools, and government offices. The €150 fine on violators discomfited traditionalist Muslim women. Today donning facemasks is a must in public. Frenchmen culturally resistant to authority deride the €305 penalty for non-wear as curtailment of individual rights. In America it’s up to the state, city, even establishment managers, whether to impose or ban masking. Fistfights have broken out at shop and restaurant doors because of arbitrary, confusing rules.

People instinctively cover faces during plagues to avoid contagion. Most governments have compelled universal masking for the converse reason – so wearers do not spread C-19. The deadly virus jumps even from asymptomatic (or pre-symptomatic) infectees. A study in Nature Medicine concludes that 44 percent of cases were by contact with carriers with no sign of sickness (yet), so mask-less. (Symptomatic patients must of course not only mask but also stay indoors.) Countries that locked down with masking readily curbed C-19 surge, compared to those that locked down but without masks, Johns Hopkins Hospital noted.

Researchers at Hong Kong University experimented the tie-up of masking and infection, The Economist reported. Not humans but hamsters were used, for ethical issues. Two cages of the lab animals, one full of infectees, the other of healthy, were set side by side, with a fan blowing from first to second. In no time two in three of the healthy hamsters got sick. When a mask was stretched over the fan, only one in three sickened. When the mask was placed right on the first cage, only one in six was infected in the second.

C-19 virus ride in droplets as a carrier talks, coughs or sneezes. Via an infectee’s eyes, nose or mouth the microbe invade the lungs. Can homemade or lab masks avert that? From many studies, The Economist said, a hanky, bandana or tea towel screens up to 60 percent of droplets, the blue mask up to 75 percent. (N95 medical-grade is reserved for surgical use.)

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Government is seeking permission to use Google and Apple technology to complement manual C-19 contact tracing. Their Exposure Notifications software will be merged with the free app StaySafe.ph by which the Dept. of Health alerts users on outbreaks. The aim is to track down all suspected cases, for swift testing, isolation, and treatment.

Contact tracing is the alternative to economy-wrecking lockdowns. Instead of confining people home – government can’t feed them anyway – they can work, thereby reviving demand, supply, and liquidity. But C-19 spread must be lessened. Rivals Google and Apple jointly developed mid-May a software for Android and iOS. It can interoperate with StaySafe.ph made by Multisys Technologies Corp. with PLDT.

App-based contact tracing can work in the Philippines if purely voluntary. Unacceptable is China-style mass surveillance by communist rulers. Filipinos are wary of the PNP and NBI hunting down little folk who twit online certain officials. (Why indeed have those agencies not deployed detectives or trained amateurs to help DOH? Japan, Korea, and Taiwan have thousands of five-man tracking teams.)

Individuals can be convinced to download the app on smartphone. The unit is assigned a random secret ID. No need to divulge sensitive info that can be abused: name, address, age, gender, work, income. By Bluetooth or Wi-Fi are recorded in a user’s phone all other users with whom s/he came into contact in recent days. The contact recording is coded; again no identification or location. If a user develops symptoms or tests positive for C-19, the system is alerted. All those exposed to him or her within, say, two to three weeks will in turn be alerted to watch out for symptoms, self-quarantine, or get tested.

Everyone is responsible for all the rest.

The state cannot be part of the system. DOH’s role is limited to giving out vital info, like outbreak areas; nearest test centers; symptoms that user, family members and workmates must look out for. The system regularly must undergo independent audit.

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Self-heroizing officials notwithstanding, defeating C-19 depends on society and on individuals. One’s sense of responsibility can protect others. Everybody must make a habit of precautions: masking, personal hygiene, cough etiquette, disinfecting, safe distancing, avoiding needless trips, self-quarantining when sick, and app-based contact tracing. Good leaders will convince, not talk down on and make people shut off. We shall overcome.

As for those who take advantage of the pandemic to steal or abuse, there will be a special place in Hell for them.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8 to 10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

My book “Exposés: Investigative Reporting for Clean Government” is available on Amazon: Exposés: Investigative Reporting for Clean Government

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Gotcha archives: www.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha

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