Asian Diplomats: Contract-Tracing Apps, Tech Solutions Play Key Role in COVID-19 Fight

Asian Diplomats: Contract-Tracing Apps, Tech Solutions Play Key Role in COVID-19 Fight

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When Indonesian Consul General Nana Yuliana went home in April during the pandemic, she found a changed country.  

Indonesia had yet to reach its peak. It’s still seeing coronavirus case counts climb in hotspots like Jakarta, the capital city, and East Java. But even then the country had begun reckoning with a version of the new normal. Shopping malls and restaurants had opened with limited capacity and a tech-enabled entry policies.  

With a U.S. phone number, Ms. Yuliana found it tough to gain access into various locations that required a scan of a digital QR code for the purposes of contact tracing and notification. 

“My sister helped register me,” Ms. Yuliana said during Global Atlanta’s third virtual Consular Conversation Aug. 6 also featuring diplomats from India and South KoreaThe event series is sponsored by Miller & Martin PLLC

Indonesia’s PeduliLindungi app asks the user to activate Bluetooth tracking.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, has logged about 123,000 confirmed infections, second most among Southeast Asian nations behind the Philippines, but still fewer than in the state of Georgia alone. The U.S. has eclipsed 5 million cases and continues to see the count rise by tens of thousands per day.  

As Indonesia’s reopening has continued, technology has played a key role in isolating outbreaks and bringing contact tracing to scale. The government’s voluntary PeduliLindungi app had been downloaded 4.6 million times by mid-July, making it the world’s fourth most downloaded government-issued app to fight the pandemic. 

In this regard, Ms. Yuliana said Indonesia is learning through a partnership with South Korea, which has set the standard for aggressive response among democracies.  

Since peaking in February, South Korea’s daily new cases have generally hovered in the double digits, with many imported from abroad. It has just shy of 15,000 confirmed infections and just over 300 deaths, even after putting on an election in April. On Aug. 12, just 56 new cases were detected.  

A key to success in the nation that would face the second large outbreak of COVID-19 after China was the government-run health care system’s funding of a diagnostic test even before the country had a confirmed case, said Kwangsuk Lee, deputy consul general in Atlanta.  

Testing peaked at 20,000 per day, including a drive- and walk-through sites that Korea pioneered to boost convenience for citizens and safety for health workers during an initial ramp-up.  

Now the testing numbers have leveled off. Overall, 1.6 million tests have been conducted in a country of 50 million, but early on, South Korea’s robust per capita testing figures were the envy of the world.  

“It helped us a lot in our containment strategy with this deadly virus. As COVID-19 can show little or no symptoms, we have prioritized early detection through preemptive and wide diagnostic screening,” Mr. Lee said during the event.  

Korea has also been among the most aggressive in the use of smartphone location data to notify citizens of potential exposure and require self-quarantine, a practice that has raised privacy and security concerns in many countries. U.S. officials criticized as draconian a QR system implemented in China that restricted travel using system of red, yellow or green codes, based on the user’s location data.  

The New York Times found that many apps implemented by governments were marked with vulnerabilities, while the MIT Technology Review outlined deficiencies in 25 of them.

Still, Korea maintains that ICT, has been an invaluable tool in the fight. For instance, the  health ministry created a mandatory app that citizens returning to country must install upon arrival and use to self report symptoms and temperature daily during a 14-day self-quarantine period.  

As of April, it had been downloaded 170,000 times; Korean officials including Mr. Lee credit such measures with avoiding national lockdowns and keeping the country’s borders open throughout the pandemic — an achievement that has not been possible in some other places.  

India’s contact-tracing app passed 150 million downloads this week.

India’s Aarogya Setu — “bridge to health” —contact-tracing app was one of those that came under fire over privacy concerns early on. Now the app has been downloaded by 150 million of India’s some 500 million smartphone users, sometimes compulsorily, with officials saying that the data has been help track existing hotspots and predict where the next ones would emerge.  

India is no stranger to rolling out massive tech solutions to the “one-sixth of humanity” that resides within its borders, said Consul General Swati Kulkarni. More than a billion people are registered with a biometric identification system known as Aadhaar, another system that has faced its share of controversy, while more than 300 million bank accounts have been created through a government enrollment drive in the last few years.  

India is now facing the third largest outbreak of the coronavirus in the world behind the U.S. and Brazil, with more than 2.2 million cases. That’s despite a lockdown that spanned more than two months was plagued with early problems as millions of migrant workers headed home, stoking fears they would bring the virus into rural areas. Most major outbreaks have been concentrated in larger urban centers like Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai 

Since lockdown measures were lifted, cases have spiked, but Ms. Kulkarni believes the early moves by the government helped buy vital time for India to develop the app, prepare hospitals, create an “indigenous” antigen testing kit and ramp up factories making personal protective equipment. 

She added that Prime Minister Narendra Modi quickly embraced video-conferencing solutions that enabled him to confer with chief ministers and keep tabs on the response in hard-hit states like Maharashtra.  

“Within the framework of democratic and federal polity, the people responded overwhelmingly, that what government is doing is best for them, that it is for public good, for the health of their near and dear ones,” she said of the lockdown.  

India’s recovery rates have been high and its death rates, at least as reported, have been relatively low per capita compared to other similarly hard-hit countries, she said. On another call with chief ministers Aug. 11, Mr. Modi noted that 80 percent of the active cases in the country are concentrated in 10 states.  

Cases may be climbing broadly overall — the one-day total Aug. 13 was 63,000-plus — much of India is “walking towards normalcy,” Ms. Kulkarni said, despite facing the prospect of its first recession in decades. More than $270 billion in stimulus, about 10 percent of GDP, has been pumped into the economy, with a particular emphasis on small business.  

The government has also been taking the time to institute more reforms to attract investors, especially those looking for a manufacturing alternative to China.  

Instructions from Korea’s health ministry on how to use the mandatory app used in self-quarantine.

Indonesia and Korea see similar opportunities, their representatives said.  

Ms. Yuliana said in 2019 Georgia accounted for nearly 6 percent of U.S. trade with Indonesia, bringing in vegetable oil, furniture, apparel, rubber and many other commodities from the country. U.S.-China tensions have helped Indonesia re-position itself, with 20 companies looking to set up alternative factories in Central Java once the pandemic subsidies.

“Our collaboration with the United States is getting stronger, especially in response to the COVID-pandemic,” she said, noting that 100 of 1,000 donated ventilators pledged by the United States have arrived in the country.

Mr. Lee of Korea doubted the COVID-19 crisis would dent interest in Georgia from Korean firms, which have poured billions into the state in recent years.  

All three countries are limiting foreign travel in some way, but Indonesia and Korea are carving out exemptions for business travelers who need to attend to their companies’ operations.  

 

To view a recording of the wide-ranging Consular Conversation, buy a Consular Conversations Annual Pass, which for $40 provides benefits for virtual events, plus access to all monthly luncheons with diplomats Global Atlanta hosts in 2021 when in-person events return. 

View an example of a similar event below: COVID Consular Conversations: Americas Edition with the consuls general of Argentina, Canada and Costa Rica 


For business inquiries related to the Indonesia, India and Korea, the consulates have provided the following contacts:   

  • Korea: Deputy Consul General Kwangsuk Lee can be reached by email at kwslee00@mofa.go.kr or at the office number 404-522-1611
  • India: See the full list of phone numbers and official contacts here
  • Indonesia: Contact Dian Brown at (713) 371-2352‬ or visit the website at https://kemlu.go.id/houston/id.



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