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COVID-19 Action Spotlight: Detection & Containment

In this six-part series, as part of Tech in Action, we recognise the extraordinary contributions tech companies have made in the fight against the virus across six critical areas.

The coronavirus crisis continues to sweep the world, and while many countries have tragically seen many avoidable deaths, there have been some success stories. Unlike some of their neighbours, countries like South Korea, New Zealand, and Japan were able to quickly ‘flatten the curve’ and halt the spread of the virus – and the unnecessary deaths it can cause.

What these early success stories proved is that while lockdowns and agile public health policy are fundamental, beating the virus is near-impossible without an effective ‘contract tracing’ solution. Countries that flattened the curve were in part able to develop and deploy such solutions quickly because of the high rate of tech adoption by both citizens and governments.

For nations with weak tech infrastructure or low digital adoption, though, delivering a scalable contact tracing solution is very difficult, and can hamper efforts at tackling the virus. This can clearly be seen in South Africa and other countries on the continent with digitally remote regions. At the time of writing, South Africa is seeing a huge surge in novel coronavirus infections, with more than 452,000 confirmed cases making it the fifth worst-hit country in the world.

It’s undeniable that the country is facing multiple challenges – poorly allocated healthcare funding, disparate local regulations, and a shortage of medical supplies, all combine to produce a perfect storm. The biggest obstacle is undoubtedly the lack of digital adoption: only 51 percent of South Africans surveyed own a smartphone, and the country relies on poorly-managed triangulation of cell towers to generate location metadata.

Although researchers at the University of Cape Town have partnered with South Africa’s government to develop a smartphone contact tracing app, COVI-ID, this cannot be deployed in contexts where people do not own smartphones. Developing an effective contact tracing solution under these circumstances – one that is technologically robust, low-cost, and easy to use – is no mean feat.

The South African Electrotechnical Export Council, in collaboration with Aguru and the South African Department of Trade and Industry, has been tasked with the development and distribution of a contact tracing solution that can be utilised in this context. They have designed a simple wearable device and an app for data management. These will be distributed by government organisations to key workers and other citizens who must travel to school or a workplace. When the wearable detects another device within 2 metres, it records the device ID with a timestamp – which is accessible only via Bluetooth.

While many contact tracing apps have been criticised for the way they handle data – such as personal location histories – the SAEEC’s product stores no location history or personal information, giving it a greater edge in terms of privacy and data regulation than many of the alternatives being approved by governments during this pandemic.

Obstacles remain in terms of rolling out the solution at scale and, of course, delivering an observable reduction to the number of infections. While it’s unclear how much of an impact SAEEC’s tool will have on Africa’s growing COVID-19 crisis, one thing is certain: technology can still thrive, even in digital deserts.

June 2020


June 2021