To Fight the Coronavirus, Cut the Red Tape

One expeditious way to accomplish this task is to give epidemiologists access to anonymized data that is being created by the GPS tracking on our smartphones. If companies can use this data to market services to you, shouldn’t health agencies use it to track the spread of this disease?

One example of how smartphone data could be taken another step forward comes from Singapore, which has been one of the most successful countries in fighting the coronavirus, deploying numerous tools including widespread testing. Lately authorities there have added a new tool to their arsenal. As reported by The Financial Times, the government started TraceTogether, an app that uses Bluetooth technology to record distance between users as well as the duration of their encounters. People consent to give the health ministry the information, which is encrypted and deleted after 21 days. The department can then contact users in case of “probable contact” with an infected individual.

Note that this is a service people opt into. Both of us would gladly sign up. We don’t think anyone should be forced to use it, but we do think it should be legal.

Many countries have adopted data privacy regulations, some of which can prevent the creation of tools that use data to help fight the pandemic. Of course, like all of our other suggestions, we recommend this only as a temporary change, although similar measures might be necessary in another health crisis.

Although we have tried to educate ourselves about the issues raised here, we are not experts in medicine or health care, so our suggestions might not be the best ones. The people on the front lines are better suited to identify the factors inhibiting their progress.

It is standard practice in the federal government (and some state governments) to request comments before new regulations are issued. This ensures that regulators receive proper feedback before laws are written.

Ideally, governments would do the opposite now: open up sites to request comments not on new regulations, but on existing ones that are limiting our ability to fight the virus. Let people on the front lines report the regulations that are hindering them. Of course, everyone is busy right now, so to help we have set up a website where anyone with a possibly useful idea can make suggestions for ways to eliminate the red tape that is making it harder for medical workers to do their jobs. We hope readers will submit their ideas and add comments on the ideas of others.

Some of our ideas may seem radical, but crises require new ways of thinking.

Sendhil Mullainathan is a professor of behavioral and computational science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Follow him on Twitter: @m_sendhil.

Richard H. Thaler, a professor of economics and behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, won the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Follow him on Twitter: @R_Thaler.

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