Last week, I saw a frail, elderly woman, hunched over and dragging her feet, walk towards a supermarket in downtown Singapore before stopping short at the door to dig through her bag for her wallet.
A queue had started forming behind her as she finally found her identity card, on which she scanned a barcode to get access to the store.
She needed to do this to check in for Covid-19 tracing purposes, but by the end of the year her ID card won’t be enough: the government is making its TraceTogether smartphone app mandatory to access most public venues, such as malls, restaurants and workplaces, before the country eases social restrictions further.
Since the elderly are least comfortable with smartphones, the government has also turned to wearable tech to try and reach the whole population.
In June, it launched a tracking device that functions in the same way as the app, which uses Bluetooth to record distance between users and the duration of their encounters. (The health ministry can reach out to users in case of “probable contact” with an infected individual.)
This small, white plastic square fits in the palm of your hand and can be tied to a lanyard to be worn around the neck; it has an impressive battery life of six to nine months and a QR code on its back that is scanned at a venue’s entrance. Its solid physical presence, compared with a fiddlier app, makes for much easier check-ins.
In the rush to fight Covid-19, countries around the world — especially tech-keen governments such as Singapore — have turned to apps, QR codes and digital mechanisms to trace citizens and identify cases. But some have paid little attention to the elderly beyond telling them to stay at home.
The rest of the world is waiting to see if Singapore’s wearable tokens prove successful at enabling older generations to adapt and remain socially active.
In a July survey of 7,500 Singaporeans between the ages of 55 and 75, Singapore Management University found that only 40 per cent of the respondents were comfortable with scanning QR codes for digital check-ins. “These findings highlight the difficulties that older adults face when adopting new technology into their daily lives,” the report said.
Ensuring seniors’ mobility is critical as the world jumps into and out of lockdowns to counter waves of infections. As one of the groups more vulnerable to Covid-19, self-isolation can be vital to protect the elderly. But it also triggers unintended consequences, with loneliness making older adults more susceptible to depression and anxiety.
This is a significant issue for Singapore, where more than 600,000 people — one-tenth of the population — are aged 65 or above and where seniors’ social interactions often occur outside the home, including in community clubs that are dotted across the island.
Even with the new tech, however, not all older Singaporeans are embracing TraceTogether. One 75-year-old told me he had downloaded the app and then deleted it before picking up the device only to leave it at home. “Our privacy might be compromised . . . I am not comfortable with that,” he said.
The government has said the device has neither GPS nor internet nor cellular connectivity and that all data — which is deleted regularly — stays on the token until the user tests positive for Covid-19. At that point, they are obliged by law to hand the device — government property — over to the authorities.
Critics argue that in a quasi‑authoritarian democracy with a high degree of acceptance of state surveillance there may be longer-term scope for abuse of tracing mechanisms, and that a widening net of data collection on the population is worrisome. Almost 55,000 people have signed a petition rejecting the token because of privacy concerns.
But back in downtown Singapore, the seniors having the least trouble entering the supermarket were those using tokens. A 69-year-old woman told me the device simplified matters since she did not own a smartphone and would rather not use her ID card for fear of losing it. “I don’t know how to scan things,” she said.
Whether one supports the move to make TraceTogether an omnipresent tech or not, the island nation will at least give seniors a way to keep making trips to the supermarket.
Stefania Palma is the FT’s Singapore correspondent
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Callwhere FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on AppleSpotifyor wherever you listen.