The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) on Wednesday announced the public locations that a doctor and his girlfriend who were recently diagnosed with COVID-19 had visited after being infected.Contact-tracing efforts have helped Taiwan stay a step ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, but is all the information that gets released to the public about infected people necessary?
A New Zealand pilot who was diagnosed with the virus made international headlines after he in December last year visited public places following his mandatory three-day quarantine, spreading the infection to others. Although the CECC did not publish his name, announcing his nationality and employer was enough for people to track down his identity and plaster the Internet with his picture.
The CECC might have wanted to inform members of the public about a heightened risk of infection in some public places at certain times. However, some people directed their anger at all New Zealanders, or even all foreign residents in Taiwan. The information released by the CECC also led to a Taiwanese woman being attacked on social media after she was mistakenly identified as the woman who the pilot allegedly had an extramarital relationship with.
In the same month, a Filipino migrant worker also made international headlines when he was fined NT$100,000 for briefly stepping into the hallway of his quarantine hotel. His actions might have put workers at the hotel at risk, but he did not pose much risk to the public beyond that limited group. The report merely served to demonize an already marginalized group of people. Comments on Chinese-language news about COVID-19 cases among migrant workers have often been xenophobic, with people lambasting the government for allowing them into the country and accusing them of sapping medical resources.
It is questionable why the nationality of a person infected with COVID-19 has to be revealed, or the country from which they have arrived. Taiwan is rightfully proud of its achievements in fighting the pandemic and its transparent communication. However, why does Taiwan not simply release a tally of imported and local infections — why does it publish so many details, which do not help keep people safe and might instead lead to inflammatory reactions?
In Australia — another country that has been praised for its pandemic response — contact tracers privately contact individuals they believe might have been exposed to the virus, rather than making public announcements about infected people and the places they visited. A report published by Australia’s ABC News on Oct. 18 last year said that a human touch — rather than an automated approach — was necessary to encourage people to cooperate in contact-tracing efforts. Tracers “have to demonstrate great tact and empathy,” it said.
The Australian approach is different from that of Taiwanese health authorities, who issue daily updates at news conferences, and send notifications to the smartphones of people who might have been at risk of infection.
Few might sympathize with those who breach quarantine rules and put others at risk, but it is not always they who are threatened after their private details are published online. If authorities reveal the gender and nationality of an infected person — which is irrelevant from a perspective of disease prevention — then everyone of the same gender and nationality is at risk of being attacked on social media.
For the purpose of reducing the risk of community transmission, the only information the CECC should release is where and when an infected person visited a public place. The CECC has done a commendable job protecting the public, but it must be cautious about fueling animosity toward particular demographics during these trying times. People must know when they were exposed to risk, but unhelpful details should be kept to a minimum.
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