The Slatest

Strongman Medicine: Should We Trust Track and Trace?

Benjamin Netanyahu on the phone.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Lior Mizrahi / Stringer/Getty Images.

Welcome to Strongman Medicine, a weekly column looking at how governments around the world are taking advantage of the pandemic for censorship, surveillance, and repression. Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.

In this week’s roundup, some reasons to be wary that democratic governments will use “track and trace” only as intended, more attacks on government critics around the world, a success story that shows just how hard it is to conduct a free election under a pandemic, and the strange case of Nicaragua.

Big Brother is tracking

There’s widespread agreement now that some form of “track and trace”—using cellphone data to track the contacts of people infected with the coronavirus—will be necessary to allow countries to reopen their economies. Several East Asian countries—notably South Korea and Singapore—had enormous success using track and trace to control their outbreaks. Apple and Google will be rolling out track and trace software for iOS and Android next month. In theory these programs are supposed to protect users’ privacy. For example, the South Korean government’s website allows you to see if you’ve been in proximity to a person who has tested positive for coronavirus, but not that person’s name. But users still have little choice but to trust authorities not to abuse this data, and not all governments are earning that kind of trust.

The Guardian reported this week on a draft memo stating that a contact tracing app being developed by the UK’s National Health Service would allow ministers to “de-anonymize” users, if that became necessary. It did not detail the circumstances that would require this.

In Israel, meanwhile, privacy advocates are concerned about the prominent role the country’s intelligence services are playing in the country’s coronavirus response. Israel’s famed spy agency, the Mossad, has been taking a surprisingly prominent role in attaining medical equipment and information for Israeli hospitals from around the world, the New York Times reported this week. The internal security service, Shin Bet, has also been tasked with tapping into a previously undisclosed trove of cellphone data, normally used to track terrorists, in order to trace coronavirus contacts. These aren’t necessarily people with an enormous interest in protecting data privacy.

We already have a glimpse into an extreme version of this system. China’s “color code” system requires users have to display a QR code on their phone to be allowed into public places. Those with the wrong color, due to virus risk, can be barred entry.

The media crackdown continues

Governments around the world continue to target journalists and activists for reporting on the outbreak and shortcomings in official responses. In Somalia, Abdiaziz Ahmed Gurbiye, an editor at Goobjoog Media Group, was arrested and charged with spreading false information and insulting the honor of the president over comments on a personal social media page criticizing the Somali president’s management of the COVID-19 outbreak. In Azerbaijan, Human Rights Watch reports that at least six activists and a pro-opposition journalist have been arrested and charged with violating lockdown restrictions or disobeying police orders. Those arrested had nearly all “criticized conditions in government-run quarantine centers or the government’s failure to provide adequate compensation to people struggling financially from the consequences of the pandemic,” HRW noted. In Chechnya, local strongman/warlord Ramzan Kadyrov devoted a televised speech to personally attacking Elena Milishina, a journalist for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, after she reported that some quarantined Chechens were afraid to report coronavirus symptoms to the authorities. This is not an idle threat in Chechyna: As the Committee to Protect Journalists notes, at least six of the thirty-eight journalists murdered in Russia since 1992 had covered the province, including Milishina’s colleage Anna Politkovskaya.

Disappearing act

Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has been one of the small list of world leaders still refusing to institute social-distancing measures and denying the severity of the virus. But his response has been particularly strange. After March 12, Ortega, once the leader of the insurgent Sandinista rebels but now an increasingly autocratic and erratic leader, disappeared from view entirely, sparking widespread rumors that he was under quarantine or had died. During his absence, the government made some questionable decisions such as sponsoring a “Love in the time of COVID-19,” mass march in the capital as a show of unity.

After more than a month, he reappeared this week, giving a speech in which he said that the Coronavirus is a “sign from God” to punish imperialism and militarism, and claiming that Nicaragua has had only three confirmed cases of the disease—all imported—and one death. This is almost certainly not true.

Fair elections are possible—but difficult—in the time of coronavirus

Amid all the backsliding, it’s worth highlighting a democratic success story. Social distancing measures have imperiled elections around the world. Countries including Bolivia and Ethiopia have already delayed highly anticipated elections. In the United States, several states have delayed their primary votes and last week’s Wisconsin election was a dangerous and undemocratic mess. Given recent backsliding on the rule of law in Poland, critics charge the the ruling Law and Justice party is rushing ahead plans to hold a presidential election by mail in May, and that the vote will be neither free nor fair.

This week, however, South Korea once again showed the world how it’s done. On Wednesday, 66 percent of Koreans—the highest turnout in 28 years—voted in parliamentary elections, delivering a landslide victory for President Moon Jae-in’s governing Democratic Party. Before the government was widely praised for its coronavirus response, the left-leaning party had been struggling in the polls, owing to a sluggish economy and a number of scandals.

How was this possible? The New York Times reports that all voters were given gloves, required to wear masks, waited on line in 3-foot intervals, and had their temperature checked before voting. The thousands of Koreans still in quarantine were escorted to the polls by police after voting had closed for the general public. People hospitalized with coronavirus were allowed to vote by mail.

In other words, a safe and free election is possible right now, if the people in charge want to hold one.