In the next couple of weeks just about everyone in this country will face a decision on whether they will put an app on their phones to track their contacts so new cases of COVID-19 can be traced. By now, we should have been talking about this for months.
If we don’t start using these apps, are we ever really going to reopen? If we do, are we going to submit to surveillance? Will Canadians feel betrayed by neighbours who don’t voluntarily add them to their phones, like neighbours who break quarantine? Is there any other way to prevent a second wave? Or to make it possible to travel and interact normally again?
It’s possible that none of those questions will ever really be debated. The provinces, and Ottawa, might roll out these apps to general silence while their citizens ignore them. But there will still be that first question: Will society reopen, and stay open, without them?
Right now, the provinces and the federal government are talking about some kind of co-ordination, about whether there will be 14 apps or five or one and about how to make sure they can exchange information with each other. But in a week or two some or all will start rolling them out.
Alberta has had one for a month, but technical drawbacks meant only 5 per cent of the population downloaded it, so it only traced one case. Version 2.0 is on the way.
This is, or should be, a major public issue. Because if we want these things, and believe they aren’t a threat to privacy, we should want nearly everyone to use them – just as we want everyone to stay two metres apart.
For months there been two oft-repeated catchphrases about controlling the spread of the coronavirus. One was social distancing. The other was test and trace. Reopening society, and the economy, means a relaxation of physical distancing. Now, and until a vaccine is available, testing, and increasingly tracing, will be critical.
“That’s been the mantra. But there’s been very little examination of how to do it and what the implications are,” federal NDP health critic Don Davies said. “And the bottom line is we’re not doing it.”
There is, of course, tracing being done, basically the old-fashioned way, with public-health employees calling people who have tested positive and tracking down the folks they have been in contact with. Months into the pandemic, that’s not working as well as it should.
Ontario says it had beefed up tracing and taken backup from Ottawa, which has offered provinces thousands of federal civil servants, but Toronto’s public-health unit said earlier this week it can only contact 80 per cent of the people who test positive within 24 hours, let alone their contacts. Le Devoir reported that Montreal, the hardest-hit area in the country, has 140 full-time contact tracers.
The apps promise to do more. They can alert contacts you never knew, which in theory means an outbreak in a restaurant or bar can be traced before the spread widens. A study by Oxford University modellers concluded that if 80 per cent of mobile-phone owners used it, COVID-19 could be suppressed – meaning no need for lockdowns. In Montreal, Mila, the Quebec Institute of Artificial Intelligence, is working on an app to detect and reduce risk of spread before people test positive.
The apps don’t just offer a mechanism to reduce spread, but strengthen confidence in reopening, so people are willing to go to a restaurant or a hospital again, said Dr. Jia Hu, an Alberta medical officer leading the contact-tracing app rollout.
There’s also anxiety about privacy. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner has been questioning whether there are enough safeguards to make it acceptable. Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien argues that depends on the design – but as Ms. Rempel Garner noted, Mr. Therrien testified to a Commons committee on Friday that the federal government has yet to consult him.
It’s about time. Time to talk pointedly to Canadians about the plan. On Monday, Health Minister Patty Hajdu made some mushy remarks that Ottawa is consulting with provinces and, whatever it does, it will be something Canadian will be comfortable with. But there are going to be a lot of questions. The answers the public gets will have an effect on how many people use the apps – and therefore how useful they are. One way or another, that’s a big collective decision.
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.