COUNTY Medical Officer Dr Jeanine St Bernard’s disclosure this week that some people are frustrating the contact tracing process by being dishonest is dismaying. It underlines the limits of state action in tackling covid19 and reminds us of the obligations that fall squarely on the shoulders of citizens during these trying times. Do the right thing.
Speaking at the State’s covid19 media briefing on Wednesday, St Bernard said some people have been supplying wrong contact information, some refusing to answer calls, and some telling blatant lies. All of which make contact tracing – which is the mapping out of the people a sick person has been in proximity to – almost impossible.
“We have been going above and beyond calling, trying to get numbers, begging people,” St Bernard said. “We are almost running down people.”
It is understandable why some might be reluctant to admit they have symptoms, to come forward for testing, and to subject others around them to approaches by the State. There’s sadly a stigma around covid19, reflective perhaps of how in this country we tend to fear the sick more than we show sympathy.
Further, people are naturally suspicious of giving up information that feels incredibly private and personal. This is probably more so if they have already been defiant against medical advice and directives in relation to staying at home or taking precautions when going out. No one appreciates state intrusions into their privacy, particularly those that might show them in an unflattering light.
And yet, the fact remains that we know this is a disease of which people can have no symptoms at all. It’s important to contact-trace in order to warn others who may have been exposed so they can take action to prevent further spread.
The State has the option of making lying to health officials a criminal offence, or at least one attracting a fine. But to do so might actually be counter-productive. If too much is placed on the line, even fewer people might be willing to co-operate.
Public health imperatives notwithstanding, the truth is, absent extraordinary powers, there are limits to how much the State can compel people to give up the information it needs. It would be preferable for citizens, of their own volition, to co-operate.
Collaboration between doctors and patients, premised on relationships of mutual trust, is the only way to move forward if we begin to substantially widen testing.
With the calls for the end to the lockdown daily escalating, testing will be key to determining where we are and who will be able to return to the workforce. If such testing cannot be supplemented by contact tracing, the entire project of recovery could be seriously hampered.
So don’t be afraid. Answer your doctor honestly.