Adviser to the President of Latvia for Information and Digital Policy
We constantly face different choices every day. Due Covid-19, we are now more often forced to carefully think where, why and whether we should go somewhere and who, when and how long should we see, and how much time we should spend on our health and well-being. We can also choose whether to use a mobile application developed in Latvia to trace exposure to infection and help contain it. We must choose wisely and responsibly to avoid becoming another link in the chain of infection transmitting it further.
Would you like to know whether you have been exposed to Covid-19?
This is a vicious virus and often you will not feel sick right away or feel any sickness at all. If you have contracted Covid-19, you may feel no symptoms of sickness at all and the only way to find if you are positive would be a test. However, those who have clear symptoms like continuous cough, fever and chest pains have been walking around with the virus for at least two days before any symptoms appeared.
If you believe in fate, you will probably choose to live on without knowing whether you carry Coronavirus or not. You can soothe yourself thinking, ‘If I get any symptoms, I will go to a doctor and he will tell me what to do’. But this is still a very vicious virus. In those two or three days before virus shows any signs you probably have already transmitted it to others. Without knowing or any malicious intent. You might fall sick on Monday morning, have high temperature or sore throat, make an appointment with your GP, take Covid-19 test and only then realise that you visited your grandparents just the weekend before. If your tests come back positive several days later, your friends, relatives and everyone who has had extended contact with you during the weekend is at risk of being infected.
As we gradually return to normal life, go back to work, shopping and visiting relatives, there is only one way to find out whether we have been exposed to the virus. Data collected through hard work of Latvian epidemiologists and interviews with each Covid-19 patient to map the situations, places and people they have visited and come into close contact with while they have been sick or shortly before. We can, of course, remember our relatives, friends and colleagues, but I do not think anyone can remember strangers we have met at a cafe, on a bus or in a gym. Recalling all your steps throughout the past two, three, four or even more days might also be quite challenging.
Mobile phone: your best assistant
If you, your friends, colleagues, relatives, everyone you know and all people living in Latvia use the Stop COVID app, your mobile phone will become your best assistant in preventing further spread of Coronavirus. App will collect encrypted and protected data about all phones you have ‘come into contact’ with during the day. App will not register phone numbers of people around you. It will send and receive an encrypted limited-time message from and to other phones that you encounter during the day, and this data will be stored in memory of both devices. Devices will only interact if you have come too close (closer than 2 metres) or spent too much time (more than 15 minutes) in someone’s close proximity, which is considered dangerous by epidemiologists and can lead to further transmission of virus. No notifications between devices will be exchanged in cases when ‘contact’ has not happened or has been brief.
If a user of the app becomes sick and Covid-19 test confirms that a person is infected, CDCP will assign an ‘encryption key’ or a code. Using this key, your phone will access memory file, retrieve the ‘contact’ code and send it to all other devices for verification. Devices then play the ‘memory game’. They browse through their memory to check whether they have received the same code. When a match is found and other phones verify that they have received a message from infected person’s phone (an encrypted message that is exchanged automatically upon contact and stored in memory of both devices), owners of other devices will be automatically alerted that they been in contact with Covid-19 patient and should take appropriate measures.
What should I do in case of alert?
You must follow the guidelines of doctors and epidemiologists. These guidelines are based on studies and professional understanding of the virus. Although guidelines may change in future, right now, if you have received alert, you must stay home for at least 14 days to avoid further transmission of Covid-19. If you are infected, symptoms of Coronavirus should become apparent during this period of time. It is important to monitor your health status and report all symptoms of the disease promptly. If there are no symptoms, you can still take the test, but it will not give you the reassurance that you seek. Even if you test negative today, virus may become activated two days later and you will test positive. Experts recommend taking the (state covered) test when symptoms of the disease become visible or if you have been exposed to virus for a longer period, for example, share the same household with the patient. Recommendations also suggest that you should go into self-quarantine even when feeling fine because the vicious and ‘invisible’ virus can easily spread further and infect your close ones, especially elder.
We often think that if we do not feel any symptoms, there is no harm for the others. But, if you have been alerted about the exposure to virus, you have a higher risk of becoming sick and symptoms will probably start to show a couple of days later. If you do not limit your social interactions and continue to visit your grandmother, go to work and attend various events over the next couple of days, all the people you meet are exposed to greater risk of infection. You might not even feel the symptoms of Covid-19 at all, and yet a relative of yours may be severely affected. And the chain of infection goes on. Whereas, if you follow guidelines and avoid unnecessary contact, you will help break the chain of Covid-19 transmission. It might be difficult to spend two weeks locked inside home, but that is a small price compared to potential public health implications or even death.
Maybe ignorance is a bliss in case of Coronavirus? We all make our own choices. However, it is important to remember what the options are. If you infect three other people and they unwittingly transmit disease to three more, that is 12 people already, and depending on their choices many other people can possibly contract the virus, as well.
What does the app do not do or why I should not be afraid of it?
We often hear in global and local level debate on privacy and protection of privacy in the digital age concerns about Covid-19 contact tracing app being used for spying on us. But the app is not even designed to collect basic surveillance data. App does not use location services; it does not know who our contacts are and even the codes that are sent to other devices for verification are not stored in one place. Other people will never know the name of the patient and person that has infected the others. App is like a cowbell that rings every time you are exposed to Covid-19 patient or become infected yourself. Exposed persons will be identified only if you test positive and you type the code into your phone. The rest is up to you and your consciousness. This app is only a receiver and transmitter. It stores the signal and recognises it every time it bounces back, and your device is requested to validate the exposure to infection, or you are being alerted.
Solidarity is the main strength of the app
App is just a tool that we have. Like personal hygiene, 2-metre distance and washing hands with soap more often. It is our chance to help doctors, epidemiologists and scientists who are trying to outdo the virus, trace its source and respond as quickly as possible. Today, we rely on modern technologies when we need to transfer money to the right account, find the shortest or most convenient route to a destination, find the best pizza restaurant in the neighbourhood. Let us use these technologies to protect ourselves against the Coronavirus disease. Let us not forget what the Chief Epidemiologist of Latvia, Jurijs Perevoščikovs, says: ‘More freedom requires greater caution.’