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Call to download COVID-19 alert app as restrictions ease

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 17 Sept 2020
President Cyril Ramaphosa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has made an impassioned plea to citizens, urging everyone to download the government-endorsed coronavirus app, COVID Alert SA.

This, as government tries to prevent a second wave of COVID-19 infections because of the eased restrictions and scheduled move to lockdown alert level one from midnight on Sunday, 20 September.

Since the first COVID-19 case was recorded in the country in March, 15 705 South Africans have lost their lives to the disease, with more than 653 000 having been confirmed as infected and 584 195 recoveries.

Ramaphosa said in line with easing restrictions, the state will be ramping up coronavirus testing, with contact tracing through the COVID Alert SA app and the COVID Connect WhatsApp platform.

“Effective testing and contact tracing systems will allow us to quickly identify and contain outbreaks before they spread further,” he stated. “I want to make a call this evening to everyone who has a smartphone in South Africa to download the COVID Alert mobile app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.

“The app has been zero-rated by mobile networks, so you can download it without any data costs,” he added.

Developed by the Department of Health (DOH), the COVID Alert SA app has been built using Apple and Google’s API-based contact-tracing system. In April, the rival tech giants announced a joint venture to enable the use of advanced Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the deadly virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.

The app is described as a tool that lets people know if they have been exposed to the coronavirus. Using Bluetooth contact-tracing technology, it exchanges a random code with other users of the app. This happens when their smartphones are within two metres of each other for more than 15 minutes. The identity and location of the device users is not required for the exchange to happen, in order to protect their privacy, according to its creators.

Once users have downloaded and installed the app, it runs in the background. Bluetooth and notifications must be enabled for the app to work and users need to have access to a mobile or WiFi network to send and receive exposure alerts.

If a person tests positive for COVID-19, they can use the app to notify all other users that they have been in contact with during the past 14 days. All phones that have exchanged codes will receive an alert with instructions on what to do next, says the health department.

The president also indicated that the DOH has developed WhatsApp and SMS systems for people without smartphones to provide them with test results and alert them to any possible exposure to the virus.

“Contact tracing is an important preventative measure to protect yourself and your close family and friends,” he said.