Govt puts mobile tech at centre of COVID-19 mass screening, testing

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 31 Mar 2020
President Cyril Ramphosa.
President Cyril Ramphosa.

Similar to how big economies like China are taking advantage of technology resources in the fight against coronavirus (COVID-19), SA is leaning on mobile technology to curtail the spread of the disease.

Updating the nation on COVID-19 yesterday evening, president Cyril Ramaphosa expressed concern over the growing number of local infections, adding government will be entering a new phase in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Ramaphosa revealed there are now 1 326 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country, with three people having lost their lives, so far.

The next phase, according to the president, will see a screening, testing, tracing and medical management programme on a huge scale.

Furthermore, around 10 000 field workers will visit homes in villages, towns and cities to screen residents for COVID-19 symptoms. People with symptoms will be referred to local clinics or mobile clinics for testing, said Ramaphosa.

“Using mobile technology, an extensive tracing system will be rapidly deployed to trace those who have been in contact with confirmed coronavirus cases and to monitor the geographical location of new cases in real-time.

“This drive is far-reaching, it is intensive and it is unprecedented in scale.”

Tech to the rescue

Since the outbreak in Wuhan, China, the COVID-19 virus has spread around the world, claiming the lives of 37 877 people, with a current infection rate of 788 054 and166 434 recoveries, as of 11:05 this morning.

China, which at one point had the height of the infections, has managed to reduce its infection rate.

The use of new technologies and China’s already-extensive technology network were reportedly key to helping to get the infection numbers down.

According to a Forbes report, China turned to artificial intelligence, data science and other technology to track and fight the pandemic.

On the other side, Chinese tech giants, such as Alibaba, Baidu, Huawei and others, accelerated their company's healthcare initiatives, giving a tech boost to the country’s response against the disease, said Forbes.

Other reports show the Chinese government partnered with Alibaba and Tencent to develop a colour-coded health rating system to track millions of people daily. This was done using the country’s surveillance network.

In February, DJI, the Chinese company that manufactures unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, revealed a $1.5 million investment aimed at helping to fight the coronavirus.

The drone-maker pledged funds to help contain the outbreak by adapting its Agras series of agricultural spraying drones to spray disinfectant in potentially affected areas within the city of Wuhan.

After rounds of research and testing, teams developed best practices for spraying a chlorine or ethyl alcohol-based disinfectant from the air.

The company said sprayed areas included factories, residential areas and hospitals, covering more than 600 million square metres and is doing this 50 times faster than traditional methods.

Working together

The use of mobile tech will also go a long way in supporting initiatives introduced by other South African government departments.

Departments like communications, science and innovation have looked at various ways to support national government during its fight against the deadly disease.

For example, the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), through the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, is driving a partnership with the Department of Health.

This will see the establishment of a data hub to monitor the geographic spread of COVID-19.

According to Dr Blade Nzimande, DSI minister, the project will initially focus on health data, but will be integrated with other types of data to provide a more robust platform that can provide holistic decision support to the National Command Centre.

“Initial work, led by a team at the University of Pretoria, has also started mobilising continent-wide networks to build databases on COVID-19 cases. Of particular strategic importance for the South African response effort is the situation in our neighbouring countries,” said Nzimande.