India plans wristband patient surveillance as lockdown eases

India says it plans to manufacture thousands of wristbands that will monitor the locations and temperatures of coronavirus patients and help perform contact tracing

NEW DELHI -- India said Wednesday that it plans to manufacture thousands of wristbands that will monitor the locations and temperatures of coronavirus patients and help perform contact tracing.

It has 19,984 confirmed cases of coronavirus, including 640 deaths, and experts fear the epidemic's peak could still be weeks away. Thousands of wristbands are expected to be deployed, but an exact figure has not been released.

The wristbands mirror a similar program in Hong Kong, where authorities used bands to monitor overseas travelers ordered to self-isolate.

Broadcast Engineering Consultants India, a government-owned company, will present wristband designs to hospitals and state governments next week and work with Indian start-ups to manufacture them.

George Kuruvilla, the company's chairman, said the wristbands are likely to be rolled out in May.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged the country's 1.3 billion people to download a government contact-tracing app called Arogya Setu to help determine their infection risk. It has been downloaded over 50 million times since it was launched on April 2.

Kuruvilla said the wristbands could integrate data captured in the app.

The wristband will let health workers know if people they encounter have been to high-risk areas or have been in contact with an infected person, while aiding those delivering essential services such as groceries or medicines.

It will capture all the places an infected person has visited, the routes they took, determine if they had any foreign travel and identify those who were in their vicinity. It will also tell people if a sick person is nearby.

It will also help in creating a geofence, or a virtual perimeter, around areas being monitored, such as common meeting places, public transit or places for religious gatherings. A person leaving or entering the virtual perimeter could be alerted through the wristband.

The monitoring has raised privacy concerns.

Dr. Anant Bhan, a public health and bioethics expert, said it is "important to factor in privacy protections and data protections” for both apps and wristbands.

“It is also important to ensure that where possible, consent is sought for the use of location tracking and sharing. Such initiatives could be useful for public health and surveillance purposes, but should not be used to stigmatize individuals or communities,” he said.