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Public Concern Over Government-Enforced Coronavirus Containment


Authorities around the world have issued their own guidelines and rules designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus. And as they've sought to enforce these rules, some efforts have sparked backlash and concerns about privacy.

Police in one British county used drone-shaming to try to corral some dog-walkers. In South Korea, the government is sending out detailed cellphone alerts on the locations of confirmed cases. In South Africa and Kenya, police have been accused of using violence to enforce curfews and stay-at-home orders. We wanted to talk about all this, so we've called NPR correspondents Eyder Peralta in Nairobi, Anthony Kuhn in Seoul and Frank Langfitt, who's just outside of London.

Hello, everyone.




MARTIN: Well, it's good to hear you even if I can't see you. All right. Frank, I'm going to start with you. Tell us about the use of drones in the U.K. to track people accused of violating the lockdown. And then what was the response?

LANGFITT: Yeah, this got a ton of publicity here and reaction. It was up in Derbyshire. It's in what's called the Peak District, a national park. And I'm actually looking right now as we're talking of drone footage where they're locating people walking their dogs. And basically, the cops, after they posted this - it's a very elaborate, well-edited video - after they posted it, they said, you know, these people are not following the rules where you can only go out for essential shopping, medical needs and exercise.

But the thing about it is these people actually were social distancing. They were, like, 50, 100 feet from each other. And so there was a big backlash. You had a former Supreme Court justice calling it disgraceful, saying this is what a police state is like.

And the U.K. police chiefs since then have responded, and they've kind of clarified the way cops should deal with this, saying that people can travel a reasonable distance for exercise. And they can't set up roadblocks anymore, which they'd been doing, and questioning people. And the money quote was officers need to police by consent - so a real clear message from the police chiefs here to not lose public support.

MARTIN: So let's go to South Korea now. The authorities there have been sending out data to the public about the locations of infected persons, and that has raised concerns that this is stigmatizing the patients. So, Anthony, would you clarify for us, what are the authorities doing? Why are they doing it? And how is the public reacting to all this?

KUHN: Well, here in South Korea, public health authorities are empowered to trace routes of infection using credit card records, surveillance camera footage and cell phone data to find out where infected people have been. And then they send this out to the public in cell phone alerts, of which I got about four today and six yesterday. And if I see from one of these alerts that I was in the same place at the same time as an infected person, then I might want to go get tested myself.

This data does not include names. But still, sometimes people get identified, and then they can be stigmatized. They can be blamed for going out and putting other people at risk. Or sometimes they just get blamed for being sick. And human rights groups say that it's - you know, it's not good that data such as gender, nationality, ethnicity and religion have been released sometimes. That makes it easier to identify people.

Ordinary citizens seem less concerned. An opinion poll back in February found that about 50% of people actually wanted more data on infected persons. About 40% said they were getting enough, and less than 6% felt it was too much.

MARTIN: So this massive testing is really kind of the key for South Korea - right? - of addressing...

KUHN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...This. Yeah.

KUHN: Right. That's why they don't have to lock down - because they're, you know, testing so many people - nearly a half a million. They're testing so many people that they know who's got it and who doesn't. And that's why they don't have to just, you know, shut down entire cities and regions.

MARTIN: Wow. All right. Let's go to Nairobi now. Eyder, the virus is just now beginning to take hold in parts of Africa. And as you reported to us last week, the police in several countries have been accused of violence to break up large gatherings of people. So how are the different governments getting the message out about the need to control the spread of the virus?

PERALTA: I mean, so look. The message here has been consistently apocalyptic. And the thing is that most African countries - they've taken really draconian steps very early. Leaders are on TV constantly, and the military's on the street. Uganda, for example, which has only 48 confirmed cases, has shut down its borders, and they're in the middle of a complete lockdown. No one is even allowed to go out for a walk.

But President Yoweri Museveni is telling his citizens almost every night that this hurt is necessary, that the only way to keep this thing at bay is to contain it. And if that is not done, tons of Ugandans will die.

Yesterday, I was talking to Dr. Michael Chung, who is the director of medicine here at Aga Khan University, one of the big private hospitals here in Nairobi. And he said one of their advantages here is that governments are actually taking this super-seriously. And a big part of the reason is that people understand the consequences. This part of what he told me struck me. Let's listen.

MICHAEL CHUNG: This is our first stand, and in a way, this is our last stand. Like, I don't know that we have the reserves to handle much more. If we get overrun, you know, we get overrun pretty quickly, and that's it. So that's kind of scary to think about. And so I think - you know, I think we really have to make this first stand really work.

PERALTA: So he's saying they have no other choice but to make bold moves right now.

MARTIN: So we aren't yet seeing the level of infections in Africa that we are seeing in Europe and the United States, certainly. So what - are there measures being taken to track the spread of the disease?

PERALTA: There are. I mean, and I think South Africa is a really interesting case. They're leading the whole continent in cases. They're under a full lockdown. But they've also deployed hundreds of workers to do mobile testing to try and understand how this thing is spreading. And the philosophy down there is the same, Michel, which is that they have to contain this thing because if it spreads too much, the health systems are incredibly vulnerable, and it just doesn't take very much to tip them.

So they feel as though they have to do mass testing and put people in quarantine immediately, in lockdown immediately, before this thing, you know, spreads even much, right? I mean, South Africa has 1,500 cases. And then in places like Burkina Faso, where they have a couple hundred cases, hospitals are already being overrun. So the philosophy here on the continent is contain, do not mitigate.

MARTIN: And, Frank, back to you. There's an increasing...


MARTIN: ...Use of downloadable apps to track the spread of the virus. And I understand that there's a European initiative that's supposed to launch next week. Could you tell us about that?

LANGFITT: Yeah, sure. It would use Bluetooth, and they say it would not involve intrusive location tracking. It would identify people who've been in contact with those who are infected and then alert - just as Anthony was saying, alert them to get tested. It would certainly make the - easing the lockdown here and restarting the economy certainly a lot easier and would limit any rebound of infections. The National Health Service here in the United Kingdom is also working on an app like that.

MARTIN: But that sounds a lot like what Anthony was telling us about in Seoul. So this isn't operational yet, but are similar concerns being raised there, Frank?

LANGFITT: Oh, absolutely. And I think it's really interesting - when Anthony was talking about the idea of, like, credit card data, I don't think it would ever fly in Europe just because privacy - sense of privacy is very strong here.

I was talking to a guy named Jim Killock. He runs the Open Rights Group here. And he says he was concerned about the idea that you could get false positives. You know, people in London live very close together, and, you know, would the app recognize walls, that sort of thing? And also a lot of concern about data privacy, given the history of leakage and misuse, you know, in the world in general. And Killock gave a few examples.

JIM KILLOCK: Imagine that, you know, you're infected, and you're the only person who's infected within a certain distance, and other people get infected. Someone dies, you could be blamed for it. People may simply sort of avoid you or try to get you to move out. You could simply lose your job.

LANGFITT: You know, developers are insisting that only local health authorities would be able to have access to this. But, you know, we've all had lots of - there've been lots of data breaches over the years, and people are - naturally would be concerned.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Frank Langfitt, who's working outside of London. Eyder Peralta is in Nairobi, and Anthony Kuhn in Seoul.

Thank you all so much.

PERALTA: You're very welcome.

LANGFITT: Thank you, Michel.

KUHN: You're welcome, Michel.

(SOUND BITE OF WILD AND FREE'S "LOW PRESSURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

All Things ConsideredMorning Edition
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.