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Turkey’s app to reassure public about safe places they can visit amid COVID-19 pandemic

Turkey’s app to reassure public about safe places they can visit amid COVID-19 pandemic

With it paying to be cautious in light of the ongoing pandemic, a new app aims to reassure the public about safe places they can visit. Named after the Turkish acronym for “Life Fits Into Home,” the HES app developed by the Health Ministry aims to help the public adapt to a new “controlled social life” in which restrictions are relaxed provided the public follows strict measures to quell the COVID-19 outbreak. The “Safe Space” feature that was recently added to the app offers minute-by-minute updates on places safe to visit, from restaurants and shopping malls to taxis.

Since last week, Turkey has been running a trial on the feature in the central province of Kırıkkale, certifying places with “safe space” status upon multiple inspections. Safe space status means the venue is properly disinfected and free of risk with people there complying with requirements such as wearing masks and adhering to social distancing.

The Safe Space feature enables users to scan QR codes in venues and learn if the venue has hosted someone who has been exposed to the coronavirus. HES helps citizens stay informed about risky locations or neighborhoods, towns, streets and other public areas with high or low clusters of cases. It also gives a clearance code to users for intercity travel, based on the risk level of the user. A contact tracing feature also allows people to know how close they are to people at high risk of infection. Businesses and vehicles such as taxis and mass transit business, even apartment buildings, can print a QR code through the app’s latest feature. Once placed in those venues, QR codes can be scanned by users to see how many people visit the place and how many carry a risk of being infected with the coronavirus.

Users can notify the app when they exit a place and if they don’t, the app marks them “gone” after a certain period of time. The data collected by the app also helps the Health Ministry’s teams of contact tracers locate the last known contacts of a positive patient. Contact tracing currently largely relies on accounts from patients, yet the new app feature helps authorities track patients who were supposed to remain in self-isolation but violated the rules.

Sadullah Hamzaoğlu runs a restaurant in Istanbul’s Üsküdar district which relies on a QR code from the app. “The pandemic changed a lot for us, from mandatory masks and use of sanitizers and taking measures for social distancing. We have been using this new feature for the past 15 days and tell each customer to scan the QR code upon entry. We can now see how many patrons are in the risk group, and customers themselves feel safe,” he says. The use of the feature, currently mandatory in Kırıkkale, is expected to become mandatory across the country. “People can feel lazy using the app, but this is a responsibility for all of us. We are concerned about people mingling with others and violating self-isolation,” he told Demirören News Agency (DHA) on Sunday.

Ersin Acar, a restaurant customer, said he was pleased with the new feature. “You can see how many people in the risk group are there. I believe it will be better if this feature becomes available nationwide. I am a frequent traveler and did not encounter any problem (regarding the outbreak), but this is more about taking your own measures. I protect myself as much as I can,” he said.

Deniz Çoban, a banker, said he hoped the feature would be available for banks as well. “We have been confined at home for three months, and we have to go back to our lives with this normalization process. We go out for business lunches and need to feel secure. This is a valuable app for me. I hope they make it mandatory in banks too because banks have a diverse array of customers and clients from abroad. It would be helpful to trace these people, to see whether they pose risk,” he said.