Being able to see the faces of strangers from the eyes-down, walking into a store without pausing to note down your details — to some, these represent remnants of a past life, pre-pandemic.
Now, donning face masks and scanning QR codes everywhere we go has become the norm. Indeed, it’s been just about a year since the pandemic altered our day-to-day lives.
I know for me, there have been a handful of occasions where I’ve left the house, walked down the street, only to come to a sudden halt as the realisation dawned on me that I’d forgotten my mask. They’ve joined the ranks of our phones, wallets and keys — essentials that you can’t leave the house without.
Contact Tracing Apps — Another Key Essential
Arguably the intangible essential in this pandemic, as the name suggests, contact tracing apps serve to make it easier to identify individuals who may have come in contact with a person who tested positive. One can’t stray too far from home without inevitably happening upon a QR code printed on a laminated piece of paper, or on a signboard propped up by an easel.
Countries around the world have rolled out their own versions of such apps, with different names, approaches (centralised vs. decentralised, which we’ll explore below), all of which have seen varying degrees of success.
How Does Malaysia’s Own MySejahtera Compare?
In conducting research for this article, the most recent figure I was able to find in regards to the number of people who have downloaded MySejahtera was an article published by the Malay Mail on December 4th, 2020. At the time, 24.5 million people had downloaded the app, equating to a figure equal to about 70% of the total Malaysian population – and it’s almost certain to have grown since then.
Has it indeed worked in helping to curb the spread of COVID-19? The answer might seem like common sense — of course it has, how could it not? And this is true, to an extent. But as we’ll find out, it turns out that it’s a little more complicated than that.
What Makes a Contact Tracing App Effective?
It largely depends on its uptake within the population; that is, how many people have downloaded it and are using it correctly. A common statistic you might see in circulation amongst media reports is that in order for the data it provides to have tangible effects in curbing the spread of COVID-19, 56-60% of the total population needs to have downloaded a contact tracing app. This might discourage people, given that few countries have been able to achieve such a high rate of adoption.
However, this isn’t exactly true, or at least it’s been widely misconstrued. According to the original study, this percentage refers to what’s needed to “completely suppress the epidemic”. Its effectiveness and the number of people who use it are proportionately related; meaning that the more people that use it, the more effective it is. Similarly, the less people that use it, the less effective it is. Even if only 15% of the total population uses a contact tracing app, however, it is still effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19, especially when implemented in conjunction with other precautionary measures such as quarantine and social distancing.
Centralised vs. Decentralised: What’s the Difference?
These terms describe two different approaches to contact tracing. MySejahtera falls under the umbrella of the decentralised approach ; when we use it to get around, the data collected remains on our own devices. By contrast, under the centralised approach, data is stored and handled by the country’s chosen national authority.
Because of this, you might hear people lauding the decentralised approach, as it allows for a higher degree of anonymity. Centralised infrastructure has come under fire after concerns were raised about the potential for mass surveillance, and thus lack of privacy.
These concerns certainly aren’t insignificant; indeed, a joint statement dated on the 19th of April, 2020 was signed by over 300 scientists in more than 25 countries, supporting the use of decentralised infrastructure to support contact tracing.
For example, centralised infrastructure was the approach originally adopted in Germany, before it was scrapped in April in favour of Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification system, whose initiative was “applaud[ed]” in the aforementioned joint statement.
What Exactly is Exposure Notification?
Exposure Notification is basically Apple and Google’s term for contact tracing, although technically speaking, it would be incorrect to label it as such because it doesn’t allow for the identification of infected individuals by public health authorities.
Scientists worldwide have expressed support for the (Google/Apple) Exposure Notification (GAEN) system because of the emphasis it places on user privacy; something that’s been criticised for its lack of in both Qatar and India, for example, where security flaws were found in their respective contact tracing apps.
A Malaysian Perspective
MySejahtera isn’t the only contact tracing app available, although it appears to be the most prevalent amongst Malaysians. There’s also MyTrace, which tells users of the app when they’ve been in close proximity to another infected user. It relies on Bluetooth to do this, which is the main aspect in which the two apps differ from each other. Furthermore, it’s only available on Android, whereas MySejahtera is also compatible with iOS.
You can find more information about MyTrace on the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation Malaysia’s website here.
There was even a third app – SELankah – which was developed specifically by the government of Selangor, although it’s since merged with the Federal Government’s MySejahtera in June, and thus no longer available to download.
If you want to access more information, the Malaysian government has a page on their website which addresses users most frequently asked questions about MySejahtera, available in both Bahasa Melayu and English.
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