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Aarogya Setu app, a swift digital response against coronavirus

India's own contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu, has been a timely move and the fact that it has become the most downloaded app in the recent times is a testimony to citizens innate belief in the power of technology to inform, guide and protect them from unwanted consequences in these times of public health emergency.

Richa Rashmi Richa Rashmi @@Ar_Richa_Rashmi
New Delhi Updated on: June 07, 2020 10:39 IST
Aarogya Setu app, coronavirus
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Aarogya Setu app | India’s digital response against coronavirus

Amidst rising symptomatic cases and fatalities from COVID-19, India like many other countries around the world, entered into lockdown starting March 25, 2020. Lockdown has been a strategic move on the demand side to slow the infection rate in larger populace and on the supply side to ensure that health systems' capacity is not overburdened - a delayed decision on lockdown has cost many lives in European nations and the US.

Given how verdict is not yet out and uncertainty prevails over the impact that removing restrictions will have on the transmission of the disease, steps for lockdown exit will have to be iterative, edging forward while gathering evidence, at home and from other countries. Several nations have effectively curbed the pandemic through a combination of large-scale testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine, in parallel with moderate (e.g., South Korea) or strong (e.g., China) social-distancing measures.

With the new guidelines on Lockdown 4.0 that have significantly eased restrictions, the government must leverage technology and place measures that can mitigate the risk of resurgence of coronavirus. India's own contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu, has been a timely move and the fact that it has become the most downloaded app in the recent times is a testimony to citizens innate belief in the power of technology to inform, guide and protect them from unwanted consequences in these times of public health emergency.

Aarogya Setu is shaping the behavioural patterns of the citizens as they come to terms with the spread of disease in their surroundings. It is keeping them appraised of their risk status and vulnerability. Present use-cases of Aarogya Setu are driven by the need to have physical access to services in a movement restricted environment. The popularity of Aarogya Setu will ascend as it becomes an essential part of the citizen’s toolkit for engagement with other persons and places in COVID-19 era.

Another important aspect of lockdown strategy to contain the spread of virus is the curtailment and isolation measures that has been effectively implemented by state and local authorities. It is to the credit of these authorities that these measures have been implemented with the kind of ruthlessness and audacity that the situation has demanded. There has been a general sense of approval from citizenry for these actions as they are in the nature of attainment of greater good through individual restraint.

However, there is a need for redefining this policy to narrow down containment and buffer zones with the experience that has been gained over last two months. Thus, a critical part of the lockdown exit strategy is to allow greater resumption of normal activity in areas that have shown self-discipline and been able to remain largely unaffected by the surrounding menace. This should be enabled by harmonisation of guidelines among central and state governments and coordinated action by local authorities without giving any scope for arbitrariness.

As the Lockdown 4.0 guidelines come into effect, there is significant lifting of restrictions that have been provided on the basis of classification of areas into Green Zones, Orange Zones, Red Zones and Containment Zones. The Green, Orange and Red Zones have been classified at the district level by central government by taking into account the disease spread in last 15 days, new cases, doubling rate etc.

States have been given the flexibility to redefine the zones on basis of their own understanding and analysis of the situation with an advisory to err on the side of caution. Identification of containment zones has been left to the discretion of states and local governments while following the broad parameters defined by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. These containment zones have been interpreted and defined by states and authorities depending on local conditions that allow effective cordoning and perimeter control.

The local residents as well as others in transit through such containment zones are, however, often unaware of the defined boundaries and contours of these areas. This has often led to confusion and unnecessary speculation. This situation can be best avoided through making the containment zone boundaries available on the Aarogya Setu app for viewing by citizens so that they can consciously avoid movement through such places to the extent possible. Proper demarcation of containment areas will also facilitate targeted messaging to those who reside inside or in close vicinity of containment zones. Digital cordoning of containment zones will ensure transparency and visibility to people at large while ensuring tighter control in a hyperlocal environment.

The third feature of the lockdown restrictions and relaxations thereto which has assumed significance is the E-Pass system. It has been operationalized by many states, either through National Informatics Centre or their own propriety systems or even through third party software application. It is estimated that more than 20 lakh E-Pass applications have been received across the country by all such systems put together and nearly 9 lakh passes have been issued.

E-Passes are being issued by the local authorities as per central guidelines and state directives while keeping in mind the prevalence of disease in their jurisdictions and declaration of containment zones for restricted movement and passage. E-Passes are either issued in printed formats or are being made available online through state portals. Some cities have also utilized the smart city platforms to extend this service.

In absence of a national portal for coordinating inter-state travel or even legitimizing E-Passes across jurisdictions, there is tremendous scope for Aarogya Setu to leverage this opportunity and become the portal for integration with state E-Pass systems. States will find it easier to communicate with citizens by sending notifications of E-passes enabled by them on Aarogya Setu. This will allow both temporal (period of validity) and spatial (area / route where movement is allowed) aspects of E-pass to be communicated more effectively to users and regulators alike.

A standardized E-Pass system on Aarogya Setu having backward integration with state systems will allow ease of verification of COVID status of the individual before such pass is issued. Aarogya Setu will become the digital valet for carrying the E-Passes. When integrated with Digi-locker, it can become an identity card-cum-pass to access public transport facilities and other public places as they are gradually brought out of the lockdown.

Management of Covid-19 related actions and operations is essentially being done by the state governments and local authorities with guidance and support from central government. Public Health & Sanitation, Public Safety, Law & Order, Relief Distribution and Regulations for restriction on movement are essentially subjects that are governed by the state administration. Thus, states have been on the forefront of all these activities that have implications for Covid-19 management. As the nation braces itself to discover ways and means to emerge from the country-wide lockdown, state governments will again be called upon to show leadership and prepare themselves for the exit strategy.

Disclaimer: Richa Rashmi is Urban Planning and Policy Professional. Views expressed are personal.

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