With physical distancing among people now the norm, both as a matter of practice and under temporary government regulations, proximity warning systems are somewhat in fashion. Personally, I don’t think them to be absolutely necessary. However, some businesses appear to be sensing something that some of us don’t, and seems to be capitalizing on the situation.

I read with interest about a new “smart” helmet from China. It reads or measures the body temperatures of other people within seven meters of the person wearing the helmet. One news report indicated that the helmet, according to its maker, can “rapidly screen multiple individuals for high temperature” at a rate of about “200 people a minute with 96% accuracy.”

Referred to as a “wearable thermal detection device,” the helmet, through its visor’s “thermo-scan sensors,” measures or detects “high temperature” within a seven-meter radius. High temperature or fever is said to be among the common symptoms of those suffering from COVID-19. The helmet, its maker added, can also be linked to other COVID-19 tracking applications.

Even technology giants Apple and Google have gotten into proximity warning by developing a mobile phone-based “exposure notification” system that does not require a mobile “application.” This was reported in the MIT Technology Review by Charlotte Jee on Sept. 2. Jee also reported that four US states so far have signified intentions to use the system.

“Apple and Google have announced they are expanding their coronavirus exposure warning system so health agencies can take part without needing to create a customized app. It’s a significant upgrade to the system, which uses Bluetooth to work out if people have spent extended periods of time near each other and then notifies the close contacts of someone who tests positive for coronavirus,” Jee reported.

“In states or regions that have enabled the ‘Exposure Notifications Express’ tool, a prompt will flash up on phones with the latest version of Apple or Android’s operating system, informing the user that it’s available. Apple users just need to tap the screen to enable it. Android users will still have to download an app — however, the app is automatically generated for public health authorities by Google,” she added.

Jee also reported that this was a “promising development at a time when excitement around contact tracing apps has distinctly cooled. Anything that makes it easier for agencies to set up these apps should help boost adoption in the population at large, which is crucial if they are going to help break the chain of infections.”

When I checked my phones, the “Exposure Notifications” function has been made available since the most recent system update. It is simply a matter of turning on the function and I am good to go. Provided, however, that other phone owners also use the notification function; that government databases are updated; and that people I encounter mostly have updated phones.

Moreover, for the system to work, it requires the phone owner to actually use the exposure notification function or tracking app; 2.) keep his or her Bluetooth function “on” the whole time; and, 3.) submit or share a COVID-19 “diagnosis” using his or her phone. That is, if you are sick or have been infected, you should indicate so in the system, to inform others that you are sick, and that people should keep their distance.

And this, to me, is the weakness of the “Exposure Notifications” system or function. It is the same weakness of all other contact tracing and COVID-19 tracking mobile applications that have been launched since the start of the pandemic. And it is primarily because of these “requirements” that I reckon the sign up to such applications or systems have been somewhat limited. I doubt if any functioning system now has actually reached effective critical mass.

At this point, the use of the “Exposure Notifications” system is elective, and not compulsory or mandatory. How the eventual uptake will be with the Apple and Google function is still uncertain. There may also be concerns regarding individual privacy and data privacy, as some may find the system intrusive.

The other thing with proximity warnings, notification systems, and the Chinese-made helmet that measures high temperature, among other COVID-related monitoring and tracking systems, is that they can make a lot of people uneasy. And, success seems to be related to how widespread is mobile device use, and notification function or system use. In short, if people don’t have mobile phones, or don’t switch on the notification system or their Bluetooth function, then the initiative’s success will be limited.

I truly appreciate the value of the tracking and notification function, particularly the system’s ability to inform people that may have been exposed to others they were in proximity with at some point. But effectiveness will rely on people actually having a mobile phone; keeping it on as well as its Bluetooth function; using the exposure and notification function; and, the people’s and government agencies’ timely submission of correct data and diagnosis. This is a tall order.

As for the “wearable” helmet-thermometer, I doubt very much if people will start buying and wearing the helmet in public just so they can avoid people with high temperature or fever. Unless it is a “safety helmet” that is rated for use on motorcycles or in construction or manufacturing facilities, and the thermal sensor is just incidental.

One other possible use of the helmet is by security or health personnel in public places, to monitor crowds and identify those with fever. But we already have thermal scanners in airports and entrances to most if not all public places. So, having “hall monitors” wearing helmet scanners may be redundant. Moreover, under what law or regulation can these “hall monitors” actually pull aside and contain or detain people with fever or high temperature?

If we need to heavily rely on technology to tell us when and how to keep our distance from each other during this pandemic, then maybe we are in bigger trouble than we already are. Physical distancing should be a matter of practice for now, without or without technology, with or without regulation. Self-discipline to strictly adhere to health protocols may be more important than technology to keeping people safe and healthy.


Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council