When the second wave of COVID-19 hit, the Australian state of Victoria adopted a uniquely strong stance. The Victorian government was not satisfied with only “slowing the spread”; it wanted to eliminate the virus completely. The state’s ambitious goal was detailed in the “Go for Zero” policy proposal. This required a series of heavily enforced measures, including enhanced contact tracing, a rule mandating people stay within a 5 km radius of their house, and a total shutdown.
These stringent policies would have surely generated considerable political and social pushback in the United States, so how did the Victorian public react to such measures?
As part of the Bass Connections International Sub Team narrative project, I interviewed a college freshman, Rachel*, who experienced the bulk of the pandemic in Melbourne, Victoria’s capital and the epicenter of the virus’s second wave.
Rachel explained that the 5 km rule was jarring as she couldn’t “go to a lot of places that she used to always go to,” including Chadstone, a shopping center she often frequented. This 5 km rule was enforced by government officials who intercepted individuals walking outside to ensure residents obeyed the rule. Some residents resented this mandate as not everyone had access to urban green spaces or parks within a 5 km radius.
Melbourne’s proactive response to their second wave also entailed ramping up contact tracing measures. This consisted of expanding the use of QR codes at large venues and the continued use of the “COVIDSafe” contact tracing app.
Despite the emphasis government officials placed on the app’s indispensability for controlling the virus, the app ultimately failed to reach the population in the way it was intended. In fact, a month after the app’s launch, the app had identified only a single case of COVID-19. When I asked Rachel about the app’s failure, she noted that many people she knew refused to use the app over concerns over privacy. “I think there were a lot of safety concerns like security [with the app tracking location].”
Rachel’s concern over the app mirrors the broader attitudes Australians hold regarding their privacy. A survey from the University of Melbourne found that if data protection measures in the app’s designs were enhanced—for example, if the app stored data locally on the user’s phone and the data was not shared with the government—intentions to download the app would increase from 70% to 87%. Furthermore, individuals who reported no inclination ever to download COVIDSafe listed privacy as their top concern.
These statistics suggest that privacy is indeed a factor in Australians’ attitude toward digital contact tracing solutions. But it does not appear to be the only factor. It is notable that, privacy concerns aside, in the aforementioned survey 70% of individuals reported they still had an intention to download the app—although actual download and usage rates never approached that number.
There could, of course, be any number of factors behind the ineffectiveness of the app, assuming the survey results are representative. For example, because the app is not mandatory and requires affirmative steps by the user to open the app, update it, and use Bluetooth, design issues could be at play. As some have speculated, declining COVID-19 case numbers as a result of other measures may have affected user motivation to download and use the app. More data would be needed to isolate the variables at play, but at a minimum the Australian example shows that introducing and executing an effective digital contact tracing act is not straightforward, even among a population that is relatively open to the idea.
Rachel’s experience in particular also demonstrates that, even where digital solutions have fallen short, some localities have found ways to slow the spread of the virus, even if it means risking pushback from the public. Victoria’s response to the second wave of the virus was intense. Many residents became frustrated as their lives became confined primarily to walls inside their homes. While strict enforcement and restrictions on mobility were challenging for the public initially, they ultimately proved successful in stopping the spread of the virus.
In the end, Rachel said the sacrifices were worth it. Rachel told me she always complied with Melbourne’s COVID-19 policies: “I want to make sure that I’m contributing.”
*Rachel is a freshman at Duke who wishes to keep her identity private. This is not her real name.