“The Brussels Diary with Yana Toom”: App To Fight With Coronavirus


It’s spring outside, but the epidemic continues to march on. Coronavirus has not gone anywhere and will not leave in the near future. People are hoping that when the strict restrictions are lifted, the epidemic will not run riot. Everybody is thinking about what to do to avoid it. Various proposals have been made, such as antibody tests, immunity passports and so on.

Forty countries are pinning their hopes on a mobile app. Smartphones give us a unique opportunity. Why not use them? There is already the HaMagen app in Israel and Karantinas in Lithuania. Estonia is still considering the idea and on whether to choose either. The development of the app is being coordinated by the European Commission to avoid any temptation to organise total surveillance under the pretence of fighting the virus.

The working principle of the app is simple. Smartphones use Bluetooth technology: these personal networks exchange data short-range. Explained simply, a smartphone knows to which smartphones you were close. The app gains access to this information. If you, God forbid, have been found to have coronavirus, you are given a code to enter into the app. The app notifies others who were close to you about the possible danger, and it is not important where this occurred – on public transport, at work, while having a walk. People can then get tested for the virus, go into isolation and break the chain of virus transmission.

I have many questions about this. Not everyone owns a smartphone, especially in the risk group, i.e. people older than 60 years of age. True, many versions allow for the registration of family members who do not use these devices. Experts say that if 50% to 80% of smartphones were included, it would be enough. If installation of the app is voluntary, then there is a risk that the percentage of included devices would be around 20 per cent and the system would not work. However, coercion is at odds with the principles of the EU.

In this scenario, the app would work only if two conditions exist – trust and consciousness.

First, we have to trust the app and know that this is not a tool of Big Brother, who, according to Orwell “is watching you” and knows where you have been, when and with whom you made contact, and your illness. The app must be decentralised and share information anonymously with the outer world only if the person has the virus. The app must be open source so that specialists can check to ensure everything is clean and protected so that it cannot be hacked.

Second, we have to look after other people as much as ourselves and our families. If we do not follow the simple rule of social distancing of two metres on the street, no technology can help us. Let us imagine that the app tells me that I have communicated with a person who has the virus, but I do not have any symptoms; still, I have to take a test for coronavirus.

Another condition is that a notification on a smartphone should give the person the right to a free test. This condition can be more easily met because if the government decides to implement the measure then it will be ensured. It is so much more difficult to trust a program and make an effort when it is not strongly demanded.

Without trust and consciousness, the app will remain an icon on your smartphone, merely creating the illusion of safety.

Be healthy. Take care.