SAN FRANCISCO – In March and April, governments and technology companies around the world were loudly announcing contact-tracing apps that were to stand in key support against COVID-19. Four months later, its degree of penetration is much lower than expected and its effectiveness is now being relative.
The case of the United States is particularly illustrative, since despite hosting the headquarters of Apple and Google, whose technology for this purpose was the most promoted of all those that have been developed, only the state of Virginia already has an application based on that interface.
Among the factors that are hindering this strategy of epidemiological fight are the still persistent misgivings about the lack of privacy guarantees, the design flaws that in some cases have led to false alerts and, above all, the few downloads by the users.
“If people are not downloading and using the apps, it is not a sign that the apps have failed, but rather that there is a problem of trust in the overall public health response to the pandemic,” Margaret Bourdeaux said in an interview, Director of Global Public Policy Research at Harvard University School of Medicine.
In his view, the success of these applications cannot be judged in isolation, but must be encompassed in the entire response to the pandemic, since they cannot constitute the fundamental pillar of a strategy against COVID-19.
“Basic public health interventions have to be well organized and implemented, and digital contact tracing is added value, support. But without these fundamentals, it is difficult to experiment with something that is only going to offer marginal help”, the researcher emphasizes .
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A study published in April by the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom pointed out that a degree of adoption of contact tracing applications by 60% of the population would achieve maximum effectiveness, although the model used suggested that they could also be achieved good results with lower percentages.
However, the most widespread interpretation that was made of that report was that below 60% adoption these applications were not useful, something that in the opinion of Hilary Ross of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, has contributed to an unfair perception of failure.
“I think at the beginning of the crisis, digital contact tracing was given too much hype and was considered a silver bullet, which it is not,” Ross explained.
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To date, no country has managed to reach that 60% adoption (Iceland, Singapore and Ireland are among those that have come closest to that threshold, but always below 40%), in Germany, generally considered a case successful in responding to the pandemic, adoption is around 20% of the population, and in countries like France it does not reach 5%.
Perhaps one of the less conventional alternatives that have been suggested to encourage the population to download and use these applications is monetary compensation, a strategy suggested by researchers Stéphane Helleringer and Jemima A. Frimpong from Johns Hopkins University.
His study through an online survey pointed out that offering incentives of $ 50 or $ 100 significantly increases the perceived usefulness of users and increases the number of downloads, while a payment of only $ 10 has hardly any effect.
“We know from other interventions that people react to financial incentives, and given the economic costs of COVID-19, any monetary incentive that may be offered to download the application would likely have a high return in terms of pandemic control,” Helleringer explained.
At the moment, there is no evidence that any country or region has adopted this strategy to increase the downloads of their contact tracing applications and, according to the researcher, it is yet to be determined what is the exact monetary threshold above which the effect is beginning to be noticed.