How can a government really track the source of infection during a pandemics

An airborne pandemic is affecting the entire country and the hospitals are overflowing with patients. The number of severe cases is more than 20% of total infections and this is also greatly affecting the economy.

The government has tried multiple ways to prevent the pandemic from spreading (media campaigns, primary care physicians explaining folks what to do to prevent getting infected, etc.) and nothing seems to curb the infected ratio down.

One technocrat working for the government explained that already taken measures do not have the desired effect due to the individualistic culture and the asymmetric cost: preventive measures mostly protect the others, not the individual taking them, so there is a rather small incentive to pay the cost of prevention.

The same person indicated that an efficient way to really make people comply with the rules is personal accountability. This means that the government should create a mechanism to really understand who infected who. If person X infected person Y, there should be a medical analysis to track down that the infection source is person X and fine X because they did not comply with the prevention rules1.

How can the government implement such a mechanism?

1Exceptions apply to family members, caretakers and similar cases
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    $\begingroup$ I'll just point out that a person can comply perfectly with the government-mandated prevention rules and still transmit the disease, so punishing someone for transmitting the disease is not the same as punishing someone for not following the prevention rules. There will be some people who transmit among perfect rule followers, and some people who do not transmit among rule-breakers. It seems like the wrong thing is being punished. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang Yes, this is clearly possible. Such a measure would have some drawbacks and that is why it belongs to world-building rather than politics. $\endgroup$
    – Alexei
    Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ VTC not about worldbuilding. It's true that we permit real-world questions, but only when asked in a worldbuilding context (given the following rules of my world, how to answer this real-world question?). Add to this the fact that personal accountability, real data, and politics are all mixed up in the hot potato that's the current Coronavirus scare and this is off-topic. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ Not a politics question: more of an epidemiology question. Not off topically so, though. It could be pared down to "how could an epidemic be tracked on an individual level in an unwilling populace", which seems perfectly WB. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 0:06

3 Answers 3


Contact tracing

This is actually being used in some countries, not to punish people but to allow scientists and medics to analyze the spread of COVID-19, as well as predicting where the next outbreaks will be.

In your case, enforce the usage of a cell phone application that tracks where people have been, and apply massive testing. For example, children could have swab tests done everyday at school, and adults could have swab tests everyday when entering malls or offices. Once you are confirmed as infected, you have to self-isolate.

Do this, and you are able to know the most likely time and location when and where everybody got infected. Then you can punish the infected people who were at those places and times.

To make the system a little less unfair, do not punish people who infected others on the same day that they got the first positive test (proper confirmation of an infection in this case would require a second test to confirm the swab, and that can take more than a day.)

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    $\begingroup$ If you're tracking where people are, you might as well punish them for violations of quarantine rules themselves, rather than punishing them based on whether those violations result in infections. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 4:20


The virus mutates, and we can use those mutations to trace the path of the pandemic.

This reminds me of a current event for some reason. Can't quite put my finger on it...

Victoria's (Australia's) second wave of Covid19 can be traced almost entirely back to a single family of 4. 90% of virus in the country tracks back to those 4, via 3 workers in the hotel who they spread the infection to, via "two distinct chains of transmission".

But don't punish people just for being part of the chain

This diagram comes from a study in how SARS spread in Hong Kong:
enter image description here

The paper makes the argument that the spread of the virus in dense urban jungles is a property of fluid dynamics as much as anything else - blowing the virus airborne in the prevailing wind from apartment to apartment. Punishing people just for living upwind will not accomplish anything. (Especially since in this case, a backed up sewer turned out to be responsible for some of the spread.)

  • $\begingroup$ Ref. "The virus mutates" - do you mean that the virus has a traceable mutation for each host? Do such mutations also indicate directions? (i.e. one can be certain that X infected Y and not vice-versa)? $\endgroup$
    – Alexei
    Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 18:36
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    $\begingroup$ I believe so - there's lots of news out there where genomic studying has given a chain of transmission, or corrected a path that was derived from contact tracing and symptom reporting. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexei Not quite that fast. There's a pattern of mutation that can be traced but it's not good enough to determine every single point of transmission. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 14:31

Doomed effort.

The mechanism to accurately trace the disease through the population won't matter, because the corrective action that follows will fail for two reasons:

  • As NuclearWang explained, the corrective action is intended as a behavioral correction, but the findings it's based on are non-behavioral. That disconnect will make it almost completely ineffective at accomplishing the intended behavior correction.
  • The corrective action is entirely punitive, rather than collaborative or incentivizing. Speaking from personal experience, the easiest way to dissuade people from doing 'the right thing' is to attach a punishment on it, even if that leads to otherwise outlandish conclusions.

And if the mechanism itself is in any way reliant on the population's cooperation, either of these can cause the mechanism itself to fail, not just the punitive measures.


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