Covid-19 is spreading rapidly across Europe right now with rising case counts and deaths, especially in Spain and Italy. As a result, many countries have enforced lockdowns and closed their borders to mitigate a further spreading of the virus. Inevitably, these measures are prone to detrimentally affect the economy and our mental health. The Regional Director of the European branch of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Hans Kluge said: “Isolation, physical distancing, the closure of schools and workplaces are challenges that affect us, and it is natural to feel stress, anxiety fear and loneliness at the time”. Beyond that, people’s physical health is being compromised too as an increasing number of domestic violence cases has been reported. Therefore, the question arises whether we are taking the right measures. In this context, it is worth taking a close look at countries outside of Europe and at how they are handling the pandemic. South Korea is noteworthy as its Covid-19 cases have been decreasing in spite of the absence of a complete lockdown.
South Korea’s Corona tests
A key in combatting the Coronavirus spread has been the number of tests conducted in South Korea. The country’s 2015 MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) outbreak impelled them to restructure its disease control system. Due to its resourceful healthcare system and biotech industry, corona testing kits can be produced quickly. As a result, over 600 testing centres were opened as well as 50 drive-through stations where patients are being tested without having to leave their cars.
On top of medically screening as many people as possible, the country has been using technology and surveillance to trace people that have been in contact with infected patients. In particular, CCTV footage, credit card and GPS data are being investigated in order to track down potential virus carriers. Additionally, as soon as new corona cases are being detected, emergency alerts are sent to every cellphone in the affected area. This data is used by health officials and is freely accessible via national and local government websites as well as smartphone apps so that Koreans will know which areas to avoid.
Could this System work in Germany?
Under European and German data protection rules, the collection and publication of the above-mentioned data would be rather challenging to justify. The fact that surveillance remains a sensitive topic in Germany could be recently witnessed in the German Bundestag when Health Minister Jens Spahn faced criticism upon suggesting cellphone tracking in a quest to combat Covid-19. Christof Stein, spokesman for the German data protection commissioner, told Spahn: “We should not let fear blind us to the importance of data protection”. Stein went on to criticise the impracticability of cellphone tracking due to its inaccurate tracking ability: “Data is collected at cell towers that cover an area of several hundred meters in radius. You can’t tell if two people are standing next to one another or are blocks apart. Such measures simply won’t work when it comes to fighting the virus”. Nevertheless, over a hundred scientists and engineers have been working on a tracking app for several weeks. The Robert Koch Institute, as well as the Fraunhofer Institute for Communication Technology, are involved in the project. The app would be downloadable on a voluntary basis and would be compliant with applicable data protection standards. How many people would actually download it and therefore how effective it would be, remains to be seen. A first prototype could be published as early as this week.
Right to Privacy versus Right to Freedom of Movement?
Ultimately, governments seem to be confronted with two choices: limiting free movement or limiting the right to privacy. The former has undoubtedly already been compromised in light of the current quarantine situation but it cannot constitute a long-term solution. Economic and social concerns will spark a debate that needs to be had: should we limit our privacy in order to regain our free movement rights?