S Korea’s smartphone apps tracking coronavirus won’t stop buzzing

South Korea has earned international plaudits for tracking and containing the coronavirus since reporting its first case back in February.

Once the largest outbreak outside of China, South Korea has now managed to push the number of cases confirmed each day to around 50.
Swift action and free or affordable mass-testing have been the country’s most effective weapons in countering the virus. But South Korea has also turned to technology for help.

Routes taken by infected patients are published online regularly, while incoming travellers are required to report their symptoms daily on an app that they have to download on arrival at the airport.

Moreover, any person with a smartphone in South Korea – almost the entire population, given that nine out of 10 South Koreans have one – gets location-based emergency messages that alert them when they are near a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

People get the messages automatically and are not allowed to opt out.
“I’ve been getting these messages maybe six, seven or even 10 times a day,” Cho TW, a university student, told Al Jazeera.

“Now, I know which areas to avoid and I do feel like the government is doing a good job at keeping me informed.”
Signs of fatigue

But as the outbreak drags on and the messages continue to buzz on phones around the country in unison, people are showing signs of fatigue.

Raj Sharman, a professor at the University of Buffalo’s Management Science and Systems Department, studies the relationship between disaster mitigation and technology. According to his research, the effectiveness of text message alerts depends on the type of emergency at hand.

“When it comes to emergency notifications, how people comply really varies by the context. The impact of the messaging is actually based on one’s perception of the threat,” Sharman said.

“We tend to look at all disasters as the same but a small storm is very different from an active shooter situation, which is very different from a building fire.”
In other words, how people respond to text messages with government advice reflects not only their personal beliefs but societal and cultural pressures.

“Text messages definitely would be effective at least in getting people to know about the situation, but the next question is compliance. If someone thinks COVID-19 is not life-threatening, they may not be as compliant [to health recommendations] as others,” Wencui Han, an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Also, if the people around me don’t care, then maybe I don’t think I have to follow [recommendations]. But if we all, for example, are staying at home and taking these messages seriously, then this influences everyone else.”
Steady stream of alerts

At least 10,384 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in South Korea as of April 8, but more than half have already been cured. At least 200 people have died of the disease.

The text alerts are sent out at the discretion of regional governments and specifically target people in those areas, giving them an opportunity to avoid locations where active cases have been found.

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