When contact tracing becomes policing

A big hue and cry erupted in Kerala over police sourcing call detail records of corona positive persons from telecom companies to perform contact tracing. The opposition accused the LDF government of turning Kerala into a surveillance state. Now it turns out that at least eight states have been following the modus operandi. It bears out the axiom that if one person is caught committing a novel offence rest assured that there are many others doing the same.

With the pandemic reaching unmanageable levels and health workers were overrun, Kerala was among the first states to turn the task of contact tracing over to police. It was called the Kasargod model. While health workers quick patients for their contacts and trace out route maps, police did what police does best: source call detail records as they would in a criminal investigation or a missing person case. A health worker is trained to trust his or her subjects, the police in contrast harbours an instinctive distrust.  One also feels sorry for policemen having to wear so many hats at the same time, as if law and order isn’t particularly taxing enough.

The only glitch here is a corona patient is neither an offender or victim. So the least police could have done was get consent from the positive person while recording his phone number for collecting call detail records. Not doing so was a a violation of fundamental right to privacy. The police claim that the data will be deleted in 14 days is laughable. Today it is for contact tracing, tomorrow it could be for law enforcement, day after for surveillance, and some day for re-education camps, may that day never come.

The trouble with contact tracing is that it loses its utility after community transmission sets in. But in India we are chary to use the phrase. The sero survey results indicate asymptomatic virus spread far greater than rudimentary contact tracing efforts. Of course, there is no harm in continuing contact tracing in states which are determined to track down contacts. But merely isolating contacts isn’t helpful if you aren’t going to increase testing in the general population, a mistake for which Kerala is now paying heavily.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.