South Africa has been reeling under political dysfunction and economic slowdown for quite some time now. This has been further compounded with the novel coronavirus pandemic. In this situation, technology deployment and the right use of communication channels have emerged to alleviate the suffering of the people. Effective strategizing, concerted action, on-ground healthcare forces, and relevant data-based insights have helped to combat the outbreak.
The South African Government, businesses, and tech vendors have been coming up with innovative uses of technology to reduce infection and create awareness of the dangers of COVID-19, in ways that may change technology forever.
Due to their efficiency and ease of use, contact tracing apps are gaining popularity globally, and countries are developing their own indigenous variants of it. 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 assist the government in the fight against Covid-19 through contact tracing.
Samsung has donated thousands of 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, easing the burden of the current backlog and fast-tracking their ability to track and trace cases around the country.
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 creating a database that fetches information from a person’s phone to gain insights into 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 neighborhood. 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 recognize 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 these testing times. The South African government approached a number of private tech players, including the tech recruitment company OfferZen, which has led to the execution of many initiatives. The Vulnerable Communities Map is one such example. The map uses publicly available data to identify and support communities that are most vulnerable. It portrays demographic data, state of healthcare, mobility level, and prevalence of poverty. Health-map for this project has been created by the SDG Hub at the University of Pretoria.
The 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 created a WhatsApp helpline with the assistance of WHO and Praekelt, a non-profit organization that uses mobile technology to improve the lives 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 through this interactive chatbot.
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 millions of users in just a few days after it was unveiled. It uses Artificial Intelligence to provide meaningful and authentic information on everything from viral symptoms to precautions and the location of nearby testing facilities and also dispels rumors and myths that have gained traction.
Stacey Manxoba, a domestic worker in Johannesburg, found the app quick and easy to use. "It is straightforward, and my questions were answered immediately," said Manxoba, who wanted to test out the bot after hearing friends talk about it.
Overwhelmed health facilities and reduced access to in-person consultations during COVID-19 have accelerated the need for remote medical care. IoT, defined as “the coordination of multiple machines, devices, and appliances connected to the internet through multiple networks”, enables remote diagnostics, treatment, and monitoring. The technology can improve patient care by connecting patients to health practitioners, and enabling the collection and analysis of data that can improve patient care. In South Africa, it has been used as follows:
Healthcare management – Poor healthcare management in developing countries is often linked to the lack of efficient visualization of hospital capacity, particularly when it comes to bed availability. To respond to this shortage, South Africa-based Gauteng health services introduced an electronic Bed Management System (eBMS) to identify the availability of beds across multiple sites. Using cloud-based technology, the IoT sensors placed on the beds enable hospital staff to seamlessly identify the availability of beds. eBMS usage resulted in important reductions in the wait time for a bed, providing patients in emergency departments with timely access to care. IoT solutions such as eBMS can give critical guidance to healthcare stakeholders and help governments prepare for future pandemics.
Thus, we see South Africa has made tremendous use of technology to disseminate information, counter the spread of COVID-19, and develop highly advanced techniques to help with diagnosis, treatment and management of patients. The nature and outcomes of these efforts sometimes differ compared to other areas of the world due to its unique challenges and opportunities. Much of the efforts are also earmarked by a flexible approach to problem-solving, local tech entrepreneurship, and swift adoption of cutting-edge technology.
( Inputs from geospatialworld.org, Weforum.org and gsma.com)