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Millions Download Australia’s Controversial Coronavirus Contact Tracing App

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  • Over 2 million Australians have downloaded an app called CovidSafe, which uses Bluetooth technology to log every time a user comes within less than five feet of another user for more than 15 minutes.
  • If someone tests positive, they can choose to tell the app, which will inform the people they came in contact with.
  • According to reports, at least 29 countries are currently using mobile data for contact tracing.
  • Many experts say that this kind of technology is key to reopening economies safely.

Australia Launches App

The Australian government rolled out an app on Sunday called CovidSafe, which uses Bluetooth technology to log every time a user comes within less than five feet of another user for more than 15 minutes.

The government has said that downloading the app is voluntary, and it also affirmed that it will not collect location data.

The information people do provide to CovidSafe includes their name, phone number, postal code, and age range. According to the official government website for the app, that data will be encrypted and stored on each individual user’s phone so that not even the user can access it. 

The website also says that even if someone using CovidSafe does test positive, they would still have to consent to their data being shared. Once they do, that information gets “uploaded to a highly secure information storage system.”

Only state and territory health authorities, as well as the app’s administrator, will be able to access that information, the website states. 

“It will be a criminal offence to use any app data in any other way. The COVIDSafe app cannot be used to enforce quarantine or isolation restrictions, or any other laws” it added.

As for how long the data exists, the government says, “the contact information stored in people’s mobiles is deleted on a 21-day rolling cycle.”

When a user deletes the app, their information will be erased once the pandemic is over, as will the data of everyone else who uses CovidSafe. If someone who deletes the app wants their information erased earlier, they will have to send in a request form.

Notably, all of the information provided on the official website is only outlined in a direction given by the Health Minister and has not been set in law.

The government is not set to vote on formal legislation until May, and some have expressed concerns about the app going forward without specific legal guidelines.

However, CovidSafe is already showing serious popularity. On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Twitter that more than two million people have downloaded the app.

While that is just under 10% of the population, the Australian government has said that about 40% of the country needs to download the app for it to be effective.

Morrison has also said that the more people who download CovidSafe, the faster economic restrictions will be lifted. The app’s rollout already comes as several states in Australia are slowly starting to ease restrictions after the country reported a daily infection growth rate of less than 1%.

Tracing Apps in Other Countries

Australia is not the only country using a contact tracing app, especially as more and more begin to open up.

According to reports, at least 29 countries are currently using mobile data for contact tracing.

In fact, Australia’s CovidSafe is based on the software used by Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which was one of the first Bluetooth tracing apps, and has also been modeled by countries like India.

Other countries have also used tracing techniques that are considered much more invasive, like South Korea and Israel, which have used methods that involve tracking peoples’ locations through phone networks without their consent.

Location tracking, specifically, has received criticism from privacy and civil liberty rights activists. Late on Sunday, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot keep using the state security service to track the cellphones of coronavirus patients after this month unless the Israeli parliament passes legislation that says they can do so.

Notably, Bluetooth tracing programs are generally considered much more privacy-friendly, though with any tracking mechanism that has government oversight, there are of course privacy and civil liberty concerns.

Bluetooth tracing also poses another problem: a large majority of people have to use it for it to be effective. Only about one in five people in Singapore signed on to TraceTogether.

That proportion was even less in India, where 75 million of the 1.3 billion people in the country have downloaded their version of the app, according to reports.

In the case of Singapore, that is especially concerning for the effectiveness of the app, as one Reuters report explained.

“The modest numbers in a tech-savvy country where trust in government is high shows the challenges facing public health authorities and technology experts around the world who are looking to exit lockdowns and believe contact-tracing apps can play an important role in restarting economies,” the report said.

Trust in Government and U.S.

That also brings up another important point: trust in government.

The app in Australia has also had a fairly strong roll out because many people are happy with the government’s coronavirus response. In fact, Morrison’s approval rating is higher than that of any of the country’s leaders in more than a decade.

But in places where government trust is low, like the U.S., it is unclear if an app like that would ever even be rolled out, or if it would be effective at all.

Right now, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website says that “detailed guidance for health departments and potential contact tracers is forthcoming,” but it provides no other information.

Meanwhile, a number of states have taken it upon themselves to invest in tracing apps. To help those efforts, the CDC announced on Thursday that it’s going to send $631 million to state and local health departments to increase their capacity to do tracing and testing. Some, however, say that falls far short.

Meanwhile, tech companies are also jumping to fill the void. According to reports, Apple and Google are joining forces to develop a Bluetooth system that could be deployed at a national level.

Despite the lack of a coordinated federal effort, many experts say that this kind of technology is essential for reopening the economy safely, especially as many states and cities eye measures to open back up.

During an interview with Snapchat in mid-April, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the White House’s coronavirus taskforce, said that a tracing app “makes sense” from “a purely public health standpoint.”

However, Fauci also noted that an app would create “sticky, sticky issues.”

“You know, you could look at somebody’s cellphone, and say, ‘You were next to these 25 people over the last 24 hours,’” he continued. “Boy, I’ve got to tell you, the civil liberties-type pushback on that would be considerable.”

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Guardian) (Reuters)

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Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

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  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

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Greta Thunberg To Skip U.N. Climate Change Conference, Citing Vaccine Inequality

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  • Young environmental activist Greta Thunberg will not attend the U.N.’s climate change conference set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland this November.
  • “Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem,” the 18-year-old tweeted Friday, adding, “Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions.”
  • Since rollouts began late last year, 40% of vaccines have been administered in wealthy and Western countries, according to The Washington Post.
  • Scientists have warned that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.

Thunberg Points To Vaccine Inequality

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has said she is skipping the UN’s climate change conference.

The COP26 summit is set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland in November, but 18-year-old Thunberg told BBC she won’t attend because she’s concerned about the impact COVID-19 will have on attendance.

In a Twitter thread Friday, she responded to a headline about her plans to miss the summit.

“Of course I would love to attend…But not unless everyone can take part on the same terms. Right now many countries are vaccinating healthy young people, often at the expense of risk groups and front line workers (mainly from global south, as usual…),” she wrote.

“Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem.”

“Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions,” the teen continued.

Thunberg went on to say that if the summit is delayed, it doesn’t mean urgent action should too.

“We don’t have to wait for conferences nor anyone or anything else to dramatically start reducing our emissions. Solidarity and action can start today,” she added before noting that digital alternatives for the conference would also be insufficient.

“High speed internet connection and access to computers is extremely unequal in the world. In that case we would lack representation from those whose voices need to be heard the most when it comes to the climate crisis,” she wrote.

Data on Global Vaccine Distribution Efforts

According to The Washington Post, nearly 20% of people in the United States are now vaccinated, but many other countries are unlikely to hit that same metric by the end of the year, even with international assistance through the Covax program.

Current projections predict it could be years before developing countries distribute enough doses to come close to herd immunity, which scientists say requires inoculating around 70-80% of a population.

Since rollouts began late last year, enough shots have been distributed to fully vaccinate about 5% of the world’s population, but The Post reported that the vast majority have been administered in wealthy and Western countries.

Around 40% of vaccines have been given in 27 wealthy nations that include only 11% of the world’s population, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

That’s pretty concerning because scientists also warn that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.

Thunberg’s comments are a blow for U.K. organizers, who have already postponed the conference once from last November because of the pandemic. Even now, there has been speculation that it could be delayed again this year.

Thunberg would not play a formal role at the conference but her decision not to attend is a significant symbolic moment.

At COP25, the young climate change activist gave a headline speech and she typically attends major climate events of this nature. On top of that, reports say this summit was slated to be one of the most consequential climate conferences since the 2015 Paris accord.

On the agenda for this year’s conference discussions were country-level plans for cutting carbon emissions, along with progress on the Paris agreement and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

See what others are saying: (Insider) (CNBC) (The Washington Post)

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Japan To Explore Plans for Releasing Fukushima Power Plant Water Into Ocean

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  • Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide is reportedly planning to meet with officials and agencies soon to discuss how to dispose of about a million gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima power plant.
  • The supply of water used to cool down fuel rods is stored on-site, and the government has spent a decade decontaminating it, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Local businesses, particularly fisheries, are still concerned about the release of the water because of ensuing headlines that might lead to public distrust in their products, but Suga insists the water needs to go to make way for safely storing the far more dangerous nuclear fuel rods.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Dangerous Water or Scary Headlines?

As early as next week, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide will hold a ministerial meeting to discuss the likely release of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

The decision to release the water isn’t sudden, as the recommendation to do so has been around for over a year by various government agencies. Regardless, the decision has consistently faced backlash from local groups, particularly fisheries, over how the move will affect their livelihoods, not because the water is radioactive but because the headlines would look bad and cause fear that their products aren’t safe.

While the water is radioactive, the government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Some scientists, like geological disposal of nuclear waste expert James Conca, have pointed out that “no harm has ever come to humans or the environment from tritium, no matter what the concentration or the dose.”

Delay, Delay, Delay

The issue of the contaminated water has been kicked down the road for years, and Suga wants to resolve it because space is running out on the grounds of the plant. The water storage facilities house over a million gallons of water, which is constantly being added to as some of the stores have rainwater and groundwater seep into them.

The water is considered safe to people but takes a huge amount of space that the government wants to use to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, the rods are dangerous if not properly stored.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said the plan to get rid of the water is sound and meets global standards.    Dumping treated water into the sea is completely normal for a nuclear power plant, even in non-emergency situations.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that it’s a lose-lose situation, with Kishi reporting that he said, “It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air.”

The sentiment that the headlines would hurt local industries is likely right because even to this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture, despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to live in the area.

See what others are saying: (Kyodo News) (The Mainichi) (Japan Today)

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