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After Covid-19 – a brave new world?

Having faced down conspiracy theorists of all shades and colours who have pinned their flags to the mast of the novel coronavirus, from 5G alarmists to right-wing bigots, it would seem hardly proper for this column to play devil’s advocate by giving fresh cause for worry to an already traumatised public.

However, it is important to begin to ask – what will the world truly look like after the horrendous pestilence known as Covid-19?

Some issues cause concern in the mind of anyone watching developments. How will people feel safe sitting in a stadium to watch a soccer match, in a classroom to listen to a lecture, in a theatre to watch a movie after this horrible experience of fear, suspicion and social distancing?

A jocular exchange on television recently raised the point about what the future of social interaction might look like. One person asked the other how she would feel safe sitting in a movie theatre to watch a film. The other party responded that she was sure that all the people in the theatre with her would have had to scan their “QR health codes” before they were allowed in.

QR Health code? What is a QR code?

A QR (Quick Response) code is a barcode that can be read by a machine. It was first designed in 1994 for the automotive industry.

And a QR Health Code? It is a barcode specifically designed to carry information about the health status of an individual. Scanning it and being passed as “green” – meaning the individual is not carrying the risk of spreading coronavirus or some other disease, could quite conceivably become the new way to allow people past the turnstiles and barriers into airplanes, train stations, offices and theatres in a brave new world.

No, it is not science fiction.

It has been widely reported in the press that citizens of China are gradually being allowed to return to work and normal life. What is not widely reported is how that process is being managed and monitored.

Again, it begins to sound like apocalyptic, end-times science fiction.

 At this point there is a sinister convergence in the mind of anyone with an active imagination between the Chinese QR Health code and the hypothetical QR Health code that could confirm COVID19 vaccination status

Every citizen of China has a mobile phone. Phone numbers are registered in a central directory. In a bold experiment that started in the eastern city of Hangzhou, citizens were required to download an app on their smartphones. It is called the Alipay Health Code. It was introduced with the help of a sister company of e-commerce giant Alibaba. On signing up and filling in their details, including granting access to personal data, the app, obviously in communication with a central database, assigns them a colour code – green, yellow or red. Anybody with a “red” code is stopped automatically by machine sensors at the entrance of any public place.  The app is also automatically in communication with the police, giving the person’s location and identifying code number to a central server. The system is already in use in two hundred cities. It is being rolled out all over China.

Is the Chinese QR Health code the future the world is about to embrace?

It reeks of “Big Brother is Watching You, with all the citizens” details available to “The State”.

At present, it cannot happen anywhere except in a totalitarian state. Or can it?

What is it about the novel coronavirus that suggests the dreaded possibility that it may not fade away from public attention once people stop dying and citizens are able to go about their business? It is suggested, but not proven, that once a person has had an infection, he acquires some immunity. How long is the immunity conferred? It is too early to tell.

It is also suggested that, given the Reproduction Quotient (R0) of the virus, if somehow 70 percent of any population could acquire immunity, then the whole community would acquire “herd immunity”. One way of achieving this is for large numbers of people to become infected, with only a few developing serious illnesses. Some people suggest that this may already be happening in Europe! The other way is for an effective vaccine to be found and used. Best estimates suggest that a vaccine may still be several months away!

Already there is a movement, started in Germany, to do widespread testing of the population for antibodies, which would show the individual who has acquired immunity. Such a person may be issued an “Immunity Certificate” enabling him to evade restrictions, including “social distancing” and return to normal life. But if the “mass immunity” anticipated by the Germans does not work, it may mean the whole population will not really safe until they are vaccinated.

The question arises – since there will always be defaulters and dissenters, how will people who have been “safely” vaccinated be identified? A traditional vaccination card? Or a “smart” QR health code, easily readable on the mobile device?

At this point there is a sinister convergence in the mind of anyone with an active imagination between the Chinese QR Health code and the hypothetical QR Health code that could confirm COVID19 vaccination status.

There is one possible further leap into the dark. Why carry the information on a phone, which may be lost, or stolen? Why not an implant under the skin – a tiny chip? To some, who would by now be thoroughly alarmed, there is a biblical name for that chip.  It is called “The mark of the Beast”.

Of course, none of this is inevitable, or a necessary cause for impotent handwringing. Who needs a QR health code to record vaccination status? What is wrong with the good old vaccination card? Technology is made for the human being, and not the human being for technology. The human being will need, through Bioethics, to apply the brakes and take up responsibility for the direction of his science, and not just be led endlessly by the possibilities it offers. As the saying goes: “We don’t have to, just because we can.”

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