“It’s actually quite incredible,” he told me. “I am required to wear a mask. People take their temperatures three times a day. There is no one on the streets. It’s incredible to see a country come together like this to protect their fellow citizens.”
And then he said: “I question if this would happen back home.”
Six months and almost 160,000 American deaths later, the answer became even clearer on Wednesday when Virginia became the first state in the nation to unveil an app that uses Apple and Google technology to notify people if they come in contact with anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus.
“We’re launching COVIDWISE, a new exposure notification app to help contain #COVID19 and keep Virginians safe,” Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced on Twitter.
“If enough Virginians use this app, we can identify cases early and slow the spread of this virus. We have to continue to fight #COVID19 from every possible angle — COVIDWISE is another tool we have to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities during this pandemic.”
“Not falling for this one . . . keep your tracker!” read one response.
“Why would I willingly give the VDH permission to track who I have spent 15 minutes with?” read another, using the initials for the Virginia Department of Health. “No thanks, Hard pass. I value both my privacy and liberty.”
“This is ridiculous,” read yet another. “Never gonna happen here.”
On social media pages for Northern Virginia residents, there was enough enthusiasm that one person wrote about signing up five family members, and another called for “Northam for president!” But the naysayers also showed themselves with a “Nope” here and a “No. Freaking. Way” there.
Others expressed doubts that the effort would prove effective because it depends on something beyond technology: cooperation.
The app relies on Bluetooth wireless technology to detect when users spend time in proximity to one another, so for it to work, enough people have to download it on their iPhones or Androids. Put another way: For it to make you safer, not only do you need the app, but so does your neighbor and the grocery store clerk and your teenage daughter’s boyfriend and the plumber who spent an hour in your kitchen the other night.
“Widespread use is critical to the success of this effort,” reads a news release from the governor’s office.
That release also addresses the privacy features of the app, which officials have emphasized in recent days and plan to continue to do through a statewide public awareness campaign: “Anyone who downloads the app has the option to choose to receive exposure notifications, and if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether to share their result anonymously through COVIDWISE. No location data or personal information is ever collected, stored, tracked, or transmitted to [the Virginia Department of Health] as part of the app.”
To people outside of Virginia, waiting to see what happens, the app’s introduction may seem an interesting technological experiment. Really, though, it’s a human one.
How people in Virginia respond to the app will reveal how willing members of the community are to work together to contain the coronavirus. Technology companies may have made its creation possible, and state officials may have made it publicly available. But ultimately, it’s up to people to decide: Will Virginia blow it?
The app is free, requires minimal energy to get and promises to help limit the spread of a virus that has turned lives upside down and left many irreparably changed. People have lost not only the jobs and routines that kept their lives stable, but also people who filled those lives. They’ve lost parents and siblings and co-workers.
If you still don’t know anyone who has tested positive for the virus, you are lucky. You are also probably not Black or Brown or poor. The tolls have been brutal in those communities. In my Mexican American family alone, four of my relatives have fallen ill to the virus. And just a few days ago, I learned that a classmate of mine, a woman who walked the same school hallways as me and grew up with the same people, passed away from the virus.
And yet, people are still refusing to put a slip of cloth over their faces because they’d rather make a political statement than protect the most vulnerable around them.
They’d rather immediately dismiss an app as an invasion of their privacy than take a moment to consider that maybe it will help keep some people around them from getting sick or worse.
I get it. We are not China. We are a country that values its freedom and takes pride in its independence. But, let’s be honest, we’re also a country that is quick to download a game or an app if it promises something fun, such as the chance to see what we would look like if we were a different gender.
Remember when people were posting those pictures?
I didn’t participate at the time because I didn’t trust where my information would go if I did. I don’t often click on ads or download apps, which makes my phone a boring toy for any child who happens to pick it up.
But I live in Virginia, and I plan to get the Covidwise app (once I upgrade my ancient iPhone’s operating system, because that is one of the annoying requirements).
I don’t know if my participation will help lower the case numbers. I also don’t know if problems will later be revealed with the technology.
But I’m going to do it for the same reason I wear a mask in public: because it could help my neighbors.
That also feels American.
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