Aleksandr Verkhovsky: Humiliating monitoring, or what is wrong with Moscow’s COVID-19 tracking system

29 May 2020

Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Centre for Information and Analysis

 Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Forbes]

The Moscow government’s use of the mobile app called Social Monitoring to track those infected with COVID-19 has faced a storm of criticism in the press and on social media, and it has been a subject of discussion in the Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. Aleksandr Verkhovsky, a member of the Council, discusses how to find a compromise between the common good and human dignity. Verkhovsky is the director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis and a winner of a Moscow Helsinki Group award.

Many hostile words have already been spoken about the Social Monitoring app, which those infected with COVID-19 are graciously being asked to install. Those who live with infected people, as well as those who are merely suspected to be infected (for example, those with severe cold or flu symptoms) are also asked to download the app. The app issues fines when it detects signs that strict at-home quarantine has been broken. And, of course, it’s all done in a slipshod manner, like everything done hastily, especially by government order.

Valery Fadeev, chair of the Human Rights Council, who has discussed various “excesses” in quarantine policies, proposed revoking these fines, since the app works poorly and people likely won’t be able to figure out which fines were issued rightfully and which weren’t. The city administration is, of course, against it, and they have their own version of the truth: what’s the point of Social Monitoring without fines? It’s like controlling without sanctions.

The Human Rights Council will also be preparing a report, and I hope they will accept my proposal for solving the problem: getting rid of Social Monitoring. The Council, as is commonly known, does not work for Mayor Sobyanin, but for President Putin, so this recommendation will reach the president: indeed, as the epidemic spreads geographically, other regional leaders may very well have similar ideas for apps, and it’s best not to plant those ideas in their heads.

Why do we need to get rid of the app and not just fix it?

The fact of the matter is, this app can’t be fixed. COVID-19 quarantine in Moscow means staying home at all times. The point of the monitoring is to keep track of how well this command is being followed, without trusting citizens to be conscientious. So then the only way to monitor is to randomly request selfies — nothing else would work (except maybe implanting chips, but that’s more like a Mikhalkov quote than reality). In general, this is a fairly effective and inexpensive way of monitoring.

However, staying at home with some electronics monitoring your location — that’s the exact same thing as being under house arrest with a bracelet, except you don’t get sent to a detention centre for violating the terms, you get a series of fines. Of course fines are not a detention centre. But then, the people placed under arrest have been accused of criminal offences, and a court decides on house arrest, while there’s no suspicion of criminal activity with Social Monitoring and nothing remotely resembling a court. When the governor of Murmansk proposed these same bracelets as a method of keeping those at home who had been placed under strict quarantine, this caused widespread outrage, and the governor retracted his words. In Moscow, just about the same thing is happening, and there’s no reaction. With good intentions, we have no doubt.

This raises the question of whether such control corresponds to our ideas regarding the balance between public security and the protection of the rights and dignity of citizens. There is never a simple answer to this question of balance. It is clear in its extremes: If a person is infected with anthrax they will simply be confined, as will everyone they have had contact with, and no one will object. If a person catches the flu, then no one would think of restricting them. But how do you rationally find the balance for the cases that fall in between? 

Strictly speaking, there is no answer. It is important to consider that not everything is done rationally, including in the anti-epidemic sense. Take another, not so common, but simpler and no less important example – a funeral. At the same meeting, the Human Rights Council spoke of how the deceased with confirmed (or suspected) COVID-19 are buried in closed coffins, or even in a kind of bag. It is not possible to say goodbye. Why? The deceased cannot spread the infection through airborne droplets. While infection from contact can’t be ruled out, it would be possible to disinfect the area and forbid touching. It is both possible and necessary to limit the number of people saying goodbye, for the sake of maintaining a safe distance. But the decision taken is much harsher. Clearly, this is just because it is easier. And “COVID will excuse everything”; it can always be said that there are no unnecessary precautions in the face of a dangerous epidemic.

I didn’t put that phrase in quotation marks for nothing. When I wrote in some online dispute that we are not at war, I read in response of doctors in the Red Zone, and relatives of the dying thinking of this as war. Of course, working under very difficult, high risk conditions can subjectively be equated to military feats of labour. But our empathy regarding doctors and the relatives of the dying makes comparison with war unreasonable. And “war-like” measures are not rational behaviours during an epidemic. This, incidentally, is reflected in the different legal regulation of the two situations.

If you subtract the emotional padding around “war-like” then our idea of balance will certainly shift. It’s just a case of knowing what to subtract. Let’s have a go.

Of course, those infected with COVID-19 should not have contact with other people. But remember that we are talking about a disease with a relatively lengthy incubation period, for which around half of those infected don’t show symptoms and for the majority of the rest the disease develops like an acute viral respiratory infection. And even more people are getting sick from various acute viral respiratory infections which nobody has stopped. In other words, at this stage of the epidemic when many thousands are infected, the spread of coronavirus is simply impossible to eliminate. We can slow it down. To do this, it is important we reduce the number of people we have contact with, especially including those who are (or are very likely to be) carriers.

To reiterate, the aim is to reduce, not eliminate. The success of this is measured by statistics, and any attempt to set the impossible task for any system of “saving everybody” would not only lead to failure in solving this problem, but also give rise to negative side effects. As, in fact, always happens when one sets impossible tasks.

Let’s look at the typical subject of “Social Monitoring.” If this infected person or a family member do disregard the instructions and do go to the shops together, it will increase the overall risks.   Equally, if other people are better at maintaining their social distancing and washing their hands, or if someone in a shop regularly disinfects the surfaces, that will reduce the risks to the public.

What then is the connection between these facts? It is this: these and other ways of reducing the risks to the public are likely to be assessed against public, and, in our case, local resources. Resources that are spent on keeping the  users of the “Social Monitoring app” at home (but, of course, everybody does still pop out ) could be used to equal  benefit by being spent on something else that would reduce some very widespread risks.

 It is difficult to say with certainty which strategy would be optimal in the use of local resources. We cannot confidently assess the effectiveness of various quarantine measures. The main thing is not to imagine that there are some “decisive measures” that would be of definite benefit. No, any measures can only provide a partial result.  Awareness of this permits a more considered assessment of the various arguments in disputes about these measures.

Finally, in addition to lowering the notorious R parameter (it indicates how many people are infected by the average carrier of the virus, and characterizes the course of the epidemic), there are other consequences. These include, among other things, the preservation of people’s dignity, their right to privacy, and so on. And on all these “Social Monitoring” has an impact. Yes, it is difficult to rationally weigh these values against other considerations. But it is not impossible: in life we are always comparing values which are difficult to bring to a common denominator. And the courts also constantly do it by taking different circumstances into account. Finally, politicians have to overcome this predicament in just about every decision they make.

Personally, I believe that the “Social monitoring app” creates too many problems for conscientious citizens who take it up: fines for not sending a selfie in time or for a GPS failure and just unnecessary hassle, and, after all,  we are often talking about sick people here. I believe that this constitutes a disproportionate price to pay for overall security. This does not mean, of course, that self-restraint is morally and socially unnecessary.  Of course, there can be no consensus on such an issue as the value of security. But then it is worth taking into account the pragmatic argument that, in the face of such difficulties, many people will simply refuse to subject themselves to this app.  They will save on fines as a result, and it won’t be so demeaning. And many others, as a precautionary measure, will just go to the doctors less. That’s what’s already happening.  In terms of improving the statistics of the spread of the disease, this seems to undermine the very essence of the concept of “Social Monitoring”.

Translated by Nina dePalma, Verity Hemp and Graham Jones

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