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Solutionism and Covid-19

It’s hardly an original observation that Covid-19 has fuelled what Evgeny Morozov describes as solutionism i.e. the belief that technological solutions can be provided for even the most intractable social problems. However until reading the new book by Nicholas Christakis I hadn’t grasped how the labour involved in an activity like contact tracing would fuel the search for automated alternatives. I understood this would be labour intensive but I hadn’t realised quite how labour intensive it should be to function effectively. Can the eviscerated neoliberal state actually manage that many contractors even if there was a willingness to employ them?

When I spoke to members of the Singapore Health Department in April, for example, I was astonished to learn that they employed five thousand contact tracers in a population of about five million people. One person per thousand in their whole nation was employed for this purpose alone. At the time, Singapore had accumulated just 9,125 cases. In our country, this would translate into having 330,000 people engaged in this work. The sheer overwhelming labor involved in this process makes it clear why so many tech firms and other entities rushed to offer technological solutions for contact tracing. Even rivals such as Apple and Google teamed up to develop technology to facilitate it. In Singapore, Israel, China, Taiwan, and South Korea, people’s phone and bank-card records, and even facial-recognition cameras, were used for this purpose. China introduced color codes (green, yellow, or red) that could be checked on people’s phones by scanners; the codes indicated whether people were uninfected and unexposed, exposed, or infected. 56 People even received messages based on thresholds set by computer models telling them that they had come into contact with someone who was sick and advising them to self-isolate. Quite apart from the issue of many false positives, the threat to civil liberties here is enormous.

Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, Pg 111

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