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The Role of Contact Tracing in Keeping the Curve Flat

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October 21, 2020 7 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 , one resounding consensus from experts and organizations is that communities and nations need to work together to continue to “flatten the curve.” This refers to the bell-shaped curve that outbreaks typically take and the need to lower where the peak of that curve is to ensure that medical facilities are not overwhelmed as they try to provide care. A key strategy for doing this is .

What is contact tracing and why do we need it?

Contact tracing is a process that allows medical professionals or other authorized personnel to figure out who has been exposed to a and who they’ve come into close contact with. It’s critical for controlling an outbreak because it allows individuals to take preventative measures against infecting others (e.g., self-isolating) and to get appropriate treatments if necessary.

Contact tracing is not a new idea or process. Professionals have been using it to detect possible disease transmission for years, including well-known illnesses like . The difference between contact tracing efforts pertaining to those diseases and COVID-19 is simply scale. This is possibly the first time that healthcare workers and support staff have tried applying this technique to such a large, impacted population.

When officials look at a pandemic from a financial perspective, they consider contact tracing as the fourth of five main areas necessary torestart the economy. (The other four are lowering the rate, ensuring adequate medical capacity, ensuring we can test for suspected infections quickly, and continued public education and guidance.) Effective contact tracing can lead to the reopening of businesses and increased economic activity faster than would be prudent with no or ineffectual contact tracing. It also means leaders may have a better sense of whether their region is an infection hotspot so they can weigh economic risks against the potential for illness/loss of life and determine how long to enforce specific health orders.

Related: 7 Ways Technology Is Working to Address a World in Crisis

Implementing contact tracing and respecting privacy can go hand-in-hand

Historically, contact tracing has been conducted by an authorized representative of a agency orally interviewing an infected person to ask them who they may have been in physical contact with over a certain length of time. The persons identified as potential contacts ordinarily would not know that they are being named by the patient or have the ability to opt-in or opt-out of the process at the time that their information is given to the agency for follow-up.

As public health agencies consider adopting technological means to perform similar functions, there is an increased focus on ensuring that the privacy of both the infected person and their potential contacts is respected.

While lawmakers can and should consider the ramifications of contact tracing on individual privacy, it is important to note that the public health agencies (regardless of whether they are conducting interviews or supplementing those efforts with technology) require minimal information to perform contact tracing. This information is often limited to the contact’s name and a reliable method of reaching them for follow-up (such as phone number, email or physical address). The most critical aspect of contact tracing is to get this limited amount of information to the contact tracers as quickly as possible, so that the tracer can notify the patient’s contacts of their potential exposure. This, in turn, enables the patient’s contacts to make informed decisions about their own health and avoid exposing others. There is no need to capture other sensitive, personal information such as private areas of a person’s health, work or habits. There is also no need to retain information once the investigation is over. Contact tracers are trained by public health agencies to avoid capturing or disclosing any personal information that is unnecessary to their critical task. For example, contract tracers are trained not to disclose the identity of the infected person to that person’s contacts or to third parties.

Concerns about individual privacy should be balanced against the clear and compelling need to slow the spread of a highly communicable disease across our communities. Because COVID-19 can be spread by a person experiencing no clear symptoms, the consequences of delay can be catastrophic. Contact tracers have a very short window of time to get in touch with individuals before they potentially spread the virus even further. All it takes is one trip to a retail shop for an inadvertent carrier to infect many others. This means that public health agencies should consider using all available, responsibly-developed tools at their disposal to rapidly determine a patient’s contacts and obtain the best possible information for reaching those individuals.

Some organizations already have both databases of public information and verification technologies. This makes them well-equipped to help local and state health departments conduct contact tracing efficiently, even for a large number of people, without relying on tactics that raise deeper privacy concerns. This could be a vital step when it comes to mitigating or slowing additional waves of infection.

As an example, we developed our own contact trace report in addition to an online people search in an effort to support capabilities that are assisting public health agencies. These types of tools allow authorized and trained contact tracers to verify certain relevant relationships (e.g., your employer) and basic information (e.g., your address). This can make a big difference in the amount of time a contact tracer has to spend completing a case.

Demand for these types of capabilities is increasing and might continue to do so as the pandemic evolves. For example, some states are already leveraging existing relationships and contracts with providers. Virtually any type of vendor that’s designed to do mass contact — a call or support center, for example — may be able to leverage its infrastructure to assist public health agencies in contact tracing work. This kind of vendor has a great opportunity to assist the in combatting this public health emergency. The challenge is linking the right government decision-makers with the right private sector partners despite the other difficulties and distractions the pandemic creates, such as trying to find an adequate number of ventilators.

Related: Importance Of Data Security In the Digital Age

For real success, empathy matters too

Technology and increased partnerships can make sure contact tracing has a high level of efficiency and effectiveness. At the end of the day, though, the real challenge is empathy. Contact tracers must work quickly — at the same time, they’re delivering bad news, and often, the people they talk to are scared. The more comforting and caring tracers can be in dealing with the people they investigate, the more successful their investigations will be.

Finally, agencies and individual contact tracers must also remember that they are dealing with all demographics. Some might respond to different tracing techniques or tools more positively than others. For example, millennials may prefer texts or calls and senior citizens may want a traditional telephone call. Flexibility in approach and resources might improve both understanding and response.

When it comes down to it, it’s about keeping as many people as safe as possible and preventing or minimizing the further spread of the virus. This can be done without throwing privacy out the window and in such a way that the data gathered can help local governments make important decisions about opening things back up. With the right technology and the right approach, we can all work together to flatten the curve once more — and keep it that way.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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