South Africa Using Mobile Technology To Track Potential Coronavirus Spread

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Written by Peter Pedroncelli
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South Africa is using mobile technology to track potential coronavirus spread using a tracing system to determine movements by confirmed COVID-19 cases. A minibus taxi driver wearing a face mask looks on during his journey in Kwa-Thema east of Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Image: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe

The South African government is working with mobile operators in the country to identify and trace people who may have been in contact with confirmed coronavirus cases.

After conducting more than 60,000 COVID-19 tests, South Africa has reported 1,749 confirmed cases and 13 deaths as a result of the COVID-19 virus.

The country is 12 days into a nationwide 21-day lockdown scheduled to end on April 17 that has been described as one of the most strict globally

South Africa has had one of the quickest and most forceful responses to the pandemic, shutting its borders and imposing the military-patroled lockdown before registering the first death in the country.

Citizens are allowed to get groceries and medicine or seek urgent medical care but otherwise are ordered to remain in their homes — even walking pets and exercising outdoors is forbidden.

In an effort to prevent the spread of the virus, the South African government is tracing and tracking confirmed coronavirus cases and the individuals that they may have come into contact with through mobile technology, according to Businesstech.

The track-and-trace system determines places visited by a person confirmed to have COVID-19.

This allows health workers to visit those areas and screen individuals who the infected person may have unknowingly exposed, ITWebAfrica reports.

So if a man with coronavirus visited a couple of stores and then picked up a package at the post office in the days before he realized he had the virus, his mobile footprint would provide this information. Health workers could then visit the post office and the stores, screening the people who work in those locations. 

The tracking system reduces the reliance on COVID-19 patient’s memories of where they went and who they may have exposed unknowingly, according to Businesstech.

It does this by providing a mobile footprint of the confirmed COVID-19 patient’s movements going back for at least two weeks.

The tracking takes place through 1,500 handsets provided to health workers through a partnership between the majority state-owned telecommunications firm Telkom and Japanese phone manufacturer Samsung.

Health workers use the handsets to gather data which is centralized through a track-and-trace system developed by South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, CNBCAfrica reports.

Mobile operators including Vodacom, MTN and Cell C have agreed to provide the necessary mobile information about the movement of people without giving any personal information that identifies any individual without their consent.

In order for the personal information of specific individuals to be divulged without their consent, the government would need to apply for a subpoena from the court for each individual person, Techcentral reports.

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The track-and-trace technology has its critics. Digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that location data may not be precise enough to accurately identify people who have been in close proximity to a COVID-19 carrier.

The San Francisco-based group says that, in the context of tracking the spread of a disease that requires close personal contact, data generated by this mobile data alone generally cannot reliably determine whether two people were closer than the recommended radius of six feet for social distancing.

The digital rights group argues that a combination of mobile technologies including built-in GPS sensors and Bluetooth may be used to achieve better accuracy in the case of COVID-19 tracking and tracing.