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Restrictive measures in pandemic mitigation: On the ethics of using drones for surveillance

With the second wave of Covid-19 in India having spiraled totally out of control, perhaps this is not the ideal time to reflect on some of the more questionable ‘control strategies’ adopted by the country in the earlier days of the pandemic. Still, in this blog we aim to examine one of the restrictive measures adopted by many Indian states- the use of drones for surveillance.

One central concern in disease control measures is the question of justice as in most infectious diseases, the marginalized sections are disproportionately affected and carry the burden. As is well known, that also goes for the Covid-19 pandemic, even if everybody got hit to some extent by the pandemic, whether in terms of health or socio-economically. The age-old strategy to control infectious diseases is that people who are infected need to be monitored to prevent the disease from spreading to others. This is a delicate issue that requires a balanced approach between the ‘utilitarian aim’ of promoting public health and the more ‘libertarian aims’ of protecting privacy and freedom of movement. In the initial days of the pandemic in India (first wave and aftermath),  many ‘public health’ strategies were adopted to control the pandemic which demand analysis using an ethics lens. The use of drones was one such ‘strategy’.

Civil drones have been used globally for several purposes in the past but clear boundaries were set to their acceptable usage. Though drones may be useful in many ways in a pandemic, like for delivering food to quarantined patients or providing medicines or test kits to remote locations, their use for generating fear, through ‘framing and shaming’ goes against the basic principles of human rights and infringes upon human dignity. In this pandemic, China used drones to frighten people including children, who are seen outside their houses, and even used drones to drive them inside. In India, many states like Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat reported the use of drones in Covid-19 surveillance. A ‘progressive’ state like Kerala allowed its police to use drones similarly, and then used the drone videos as part of its ‘awareness’ campaigns. Moreover, the use of drones was primarily targeted at the common man, mostly in village areas, which shows that the principle of fairness was violated.

As for Western countries, it is worth noting that the US government didn’t pursue the use of drones in Covid-19 related surveillance, though many private companies came forward to support their use. A French court even banned the use of drones for Covid-19 surveillance. In any case, there is hardly any evidence that surveillance by drones gave better results compared to improved behavior change communication and community engagement.

Use of drones was just one among a series of restrictive ‘interventions’ used by Indian governments to deal with the spread of infection. Some of the measures like unplanned nation-wide “lockdowns” and an outright ban on all sorts of protests were not well received. Local restrictions may be required to mitigate the effects of the pandemic considering the larger public health benefits, but that requires careful planning and preparation by the governments including putting in place adequate measures to support the socio-economically vulnerable groups. In short, governments need to find the right balance when using these restrictive interventions, between protecting public health and not infringing too much on human rights, dignity & democratic rights. At the same time, the failure of the health system to meet the increasing demand of essential requirements including medical oxygen during the current COVID-19 surge shows the lack of preparedness despite the government having had a year to prepare.

Control measures with ethical scrutiny at every step during this pandemic can set an example for interventions and strategies in future pandemics. One day, hopefully, the worst of this second wave will be over. And then the use of drones (and ethics around it) for Covid surveillance might also become pertinent again.  Let’s hope we will have learnt some lessons by then. 

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Retheeeh says:

The State has no ethical concerns regarding the use of all available coercive tools and apparatus to “control” and “contain” the virus (unfortunately drones are justified by many). On the contrary, the same State has no ethical considerations about the need of systematic (including ensuring the availability of medical Oxygen) and epidemiological (including social epidemiology) interventions except the idea of Test …Test…..Test …..and again Test.