mandag 20. april 2020

Seoul’s Radical Experiment in Digital Contact Tracing

On the morning of March 23rd, I arrived at the Mapo District Office, a staid government building in northwestern Seoul, where I was greeted by Song In-su, the fifty-three-year-old deputy of the public-relations department. Instead of shaking hands, we awkwardly bumped elbows. Over the weekend, I had received my seventh local-government emergency alert—a text message with a red loudspeaker icon labelled “Mapo District Office”—informing me of new covid-19 cases in the area where I live. Song had sent them all.

“Our biggest fear right now is a super-spreader,” Song told me. This had been apparent in the anti-covid-19 fortifications I had noticed on my way up to his office, which is on the ninth floor. Bottles of hand sanitizer, now present in every imaginable public space in Mapo, from bus stops to bike racks, had been installed throughout the building. A heat sensor had scrutinized me as I’d walked through the lobby. The elevator buttons were covered with antiviral tape.

On one wall of the conference room where I met with Song, a banner reading “Coronavirus Disease Response Meeting” projected a mood of emergency. Before the pandemic, Song and his colleagues had been preparing voting booths for the local parliamentary elections, which are held every four years, in April. But in mid-February, the coronavirus spread throughout the southeastern city of Daegu, and the priorities of Mapo officials changed. “All our administrative power is concentrated on covid-19,” Song said. “You don’t even see any mention of ‘Parasite’ in the news anymore.”