How the Climate Crisis helped me decide to Download the Australian COVIDSafe App


The Australian Government has just launched its COVIDSafe Tracer App and is asking Australians to download it.

The Climate Crisis helped me decide. I now have the App and want to explain why.

There were three questions I needed to think about. First, will the App solve a problem? Second, will my data be safe? Third, what social obligations do I have in such situations? The last question was more difficult and the one I grappled with the most.

The answers I came to may not be your answers. But this is how I approached the issue.

Will the App help keep us safer from Covid-19?

I think so. It makes sense to me that a nationwide electronic system to quickly identity and contain the virus spread is a good thing. So long as enough of us participate, it will greatly enhance the Department of Health’s ability to limit the virus spread, reducing the risk from a dangerous second or even third spike in infection rates.

Manual processing for tracing and quarantining will still take place because not everyone will have the App. But this is more time consuming and reliant on people’s memory. The App should be a significant boost to faster tracing. Personally, I would feel safer as the restrictions lift knowing Australia has a really robust system for Covid-19 detection and tracing in place. I think the App will greatly enhance this.

Are my data and privacy safe?

The App contains my name, age range, phone number and postcode. This is less information than I give going through customs each time I travel. It is certainly far less than Facebook has on me. The App also creates an encrypted record of anyone who has been within a couple of metres of me for more than 15 minutes within the last 21 days and also has the App, though it does not track my location.

Still, this is the Government asking for my data. The Australian Government (and to be fair, Governments in general) is struggling to maintain citizens’ trust. Some of this I suspect is the fact that digital data technologies (such as facial recognition) are developing so fast that democratic Governments struggle to develop timely legislative protections for citizens.

Trust is also undermined by the perception (correct in many cases) that Governments can’t be trusted and do misuse data we provide in confidence. Corporate power also has an undue influence on data privacy. Facebook, for example, pays virtually no tax, resists regulation of their (our) data and makes it almost impossible for the average punter to exercise any control over their own data. If you have read Shoshana Zuboff’s terrifying book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, then you will understand why this is so serious and why individual data privacy will be very difficult to put back in the box.

The COVIDSafe App has a very narrow focus and limits on data use. If it did not, I would probably not download it. But it is time limited, the data held by the Government will be deleted when the Covid-19 pandemic is over (this requirement overrides any other Australian Law) and it is illegal for an overseas organisation to access these data. Nevertheless, without clear and independent oversight, this is still an issue of trust. So I understand why many don’t trust the Government on this. One positive is the Prime Minister has put his reputation clearly on line (and on the public record) for this and can be punished in the ballot box should he and his Government fail us.

I would still prefer to see an independent watchdog set up to ensure compliance and to watch over legislative, judicial and bureaucratic mission creep. This is currently an area of great interest to legal scholars and others and it would make me feel happier about using the App.

There is nevertheless a strong public health argument for the COVIDSafe App and by most measures the risks to me and my data are low. More positively, the App provides significant social benefits. It is to the notion of social benefit to which I now turn.

Our Social Obligation? Public interest, individual self interest and our climate future

(Individuals and community are symbiotic - Photo by GoaShape on Unsplash)

One thing that ecological sciences have shown us and that indigenous peoples have known for aeons is that everything is connected. That includes all of us because we live in an inescapably entangled world, not just with ‘nature’ but with each other. This is important because the idea individuals exist separate from their community and that our self-interest is purely a private affair is a powerful yet fundamentally flawed story. This has profound implications for the way we think about collective problems such as the climate crisis. But it is also helpful in thinking about our obligations during the Coved-19 crisis. Let me unpack this a little.

Western thought has given us the very powerful idea that we exist as independent individuals. While this advanced the notion of individual human rights, among other things, it has fetishised the individual as able to exist independent of their community or, for that matter, nature. This is clearly seen through the recent dominance of neo-liberal political theory and economics where the human family was conceptualised as a collection of self-maximising individuals. In simple terms, the most important thing about me is me and that I pursue first and foremost my own self-interest.

These ideas have a complex and lengthy history, but the outcome can be seen in a highly individualistic culture of rampant consumerism, a focus on individual well being and narrow self interest.

This legacy creates a powerful story or idea about how we see and think about ourselves and how we see our obligations as members of a community and inhabitants of the planet.

Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivet-Carnac note in their just published ‘The Future we Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis’, this individualistic competitive way of living has ‘reached its limits’. It is responsible for much widespread planetary damage where self-interest trumps collective well-being. The only viable way forward requires entirely new thinking where we see ourselves as part of a much wider community of life. To do this means we must consciously reject this competitive individualism and rethink what it means to be a human and a citizen.

This dichotomy between me as a free-floating individual and the wider community in which this ‘me’ is embedded and entangled runs deep in Western cultural and economic thinking. The highly individualistic story we tell ourselves is now a major obstacle to creating a new and safer future. Our individual self interests must make space for the needs of other humans and the non-human world. Our private interests must make space for public interests. We are entangled in a symbiosis; everything is connected.

This is not a new story. But it is a radical story because as I pondered whether to download the COVIDSafe App I realised I was thinking mainly about my personal autonomy and self-interest and less about the collective benefit. I couldn’t help it, I have been so strongly programmed to frame life this way. We live in societies where to even question the primacy of our own personal autonomy, rights and freedom is unthinkable.

The reorientation from narrow self-interest to collective responsibility is a much bigger change than might be apparent. It requires becoming a different type of person.

Fish and ‘Becoming the Future’

(This is a sunset wrasse. It is here because it looks beautiful. That’s all. Photo by David Clode on Unsplash)

I recently decided to stop eating fish. I now eat an almost 100% plant based diet. I won’t discuss the reasons here as I am currently writing a longer piece on this. But it was a hard decision given I loved eating fish and my small choices would have virtually no material impact on anything. Except me! And perhaps any fish that would otherwise not have to die.

But what helped me stick to this decision was that I have come to realise I must create the future we need. For me, that means changing the way I think and act now. It means becoming the type of citizen the future needs, even if my current choices have virtually no impact on others.

This leads me back to the COVIDSafe App. I recognised my decision is not just a private decision. It was not just about me, or my politics or my critique of the use of Government power (and I am deeply critical). The climate crisis allows us to see how intimately entangled we are in ways of thinking that we must leave behind. This includes the illusion that our self-interest is paramount. The more we practice life as members of a collective, the more it challenges us to examine the basis on which we make our individual choices.

My decision whether or not to download the App was therefore not just one of personal preference. It was not just a ‘private’ choice. I felt I needed to seriously consider the social benefits to my community.

Of course many of us will be motivated by what will be best for our neighbours or community. We are in this all together, and so must learn to become the type of persons the future needs. For me, that includes deeply examining how to disentangle my thinking from the radical individualism embedded in my personal choices. If Climate Change really does change everything, then I can no longer pretend that I can escape unchanged.

Engaged Citizens

I want to be clear. If I thought this COVIDSafe App really risked our collective well being, then I would not sign up. But we ought not see this choice as just an act of personal autonomy. Rather than withdrawing as individuals for whatever personally justifiable reasons we have, we are better off agitating for greater Government accountability to achieve a better collective solution. The neo-liberal justified radical individualism with its privatised market solutions has little to offer in the face of COVID-19. Problems of this magnitude need collectively engaged citizens if they are to be solved.

Signing up to the App is not the only expression of social engagement of course. Social distancing and following other Government Health guidelines and instructions are all part of this. So is active critique and resistance, where needed, of Government policy and actions.

In my view the COVIDSafe App is a call for collective action where our wider community needs come first. In reflecting on how I become the type or citizen the future needs, I decided I needed to put aside my personal qualms about the App and my concerns about digital privacy in light of the larger story. The future can never be about me. It is about us. It is only such radical thinking that will help us create a safer future, because the alternative is unthinkable. (This was originally published at Medium.Com)

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Copyright Simon Kerr 2020