How South Africa Uses Tech To Combat COVID-19

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South Africa has been staggering under political dysfunction and economic slowdown for quite some time now. This has been further compounded with the novel coronavirus pandemic. The country is under lockdown till the end of April to ‘flatten the curve’ of the virus. In this situation, technology deployment and the use of appropriate communication channels have come out as a saviour for the people.

Effective strategizing, concerted action, on ground healthcare forces and important data-based insights, are facilitating speedy testings’ and helping to fight the outbreak. Let’s have a look at how South Africa is using the latest technology to curb the spread of the virus.

The contact tracing apps are gaining popularity worldwide, and countries are developing their own local variants of it due to their efficiency and ease of use. A contact tracing app uses Bluetooth and location technology to track infected people and notify those who were in close proximity to them during the past 15 days. South Africa’s biggest telecom company Telkom joined hands with Samsung to help the government in the fight against COVID-19 through contact tracing.

Samsung has offered 1500 handsets to be distributed in the provinces that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. The trackers will be connected for free using Telkom’s FreeMe packages for the next 6 months, relieving the burden of the current backlog and fast-tracking their ability to track and trace cases around the country.

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Tracking and monitoring are crucial to containing the spread of the virus, however, since smartphone penetration is low in South Africa, trackers with handsets have to travel throughout the country to identify infected people. Telkom works with the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for developing a database that fetches information from a person’s phone to gain knowledge about their past movements and whereabouts.

GIS and location technologies are of great importance for providing real-time visualizations, identifying hotspots and updating the current progress. Without a spatial representation, it is very difficult to analyze the patterns of virus spread or know the number of infected people in a neighbourhood. Universities like John Hopkins and health organizations like WHO have released dashboards that are publicly accessible. Eskom, the South African electricity public utility company, was quick to realize the importance of a corona dashboard that should track the number of infected people and offer round the clock updates regarding recoveries made and people who succumbed to the deadly contagion.

Collaboration is the need of the hour in testing times like these. South African government approached a number of private tech players, including the tech recruitment company OfferZen, which has led to many initiatives. The Vulnerable Communities Map is notable among them. The map uses publicly available data to identify and support communities that are most vulnerable. It shows demographic data, state of healthcare, mobility level and prevalence of poverty. Health-map for this project has been established by the SDG Hub at the University of Pretoria.

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South African government capitalized on the reach of the instant messaging platform WhatsApp to mass deliver informative messages regarding the pandemic to millions of citizens in five languages. The country’s Department of Health also developed a WhatsApp helpline with the help of WHO and Praekelt, a non-profit organization that uses mobile technology for the betterment of the poor. Users are required to save the helpline number in their phones, following which they can send any queries and receive automated responses within a fraction of seconds.



The helpline data is updated with information from local and global news outlets as well as the latest WHO briefing in order to provide real-time updates. The service reached over 10 million users in just three days after it was unveiled. It uses AI to provide useful and credible information on everything from viral symptoms to precautions and the location of nearby testing facilities and also dispels rumours and myths that have gained traction.

 

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