In an inspiring and slightly unexpected move almost two weeks ago, Apple and Google announced a joint project to create a contact tracing system based on users’ smartphone that’s been creating a lot of buzz and even has a large part of the USA hailing it as a Holy grail answer to the problem that COVID-19 has brought. With President Mnangagwa having referenced traditional contract tracing in his Sunday national address, we thought this would be the perfect time to take a look at this new digital approach and assess if it would be of use in a country like ours. Get ready to find out.
Contact Tracing in has become a huge focus point and containment measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, being used all over the world to keep the pandemic at bay through health professionals tracing all the people infected people have been in contact with and moving to isolate and assist them as well. This was the method the president referred to in his Sunday address, and the new initiative on Apple and Google put’s an interesting spin on that. As the video above may have shown you, the system will essentially use Bluetooth technology (Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE to be exact) to send randomized codes amongst users’ phones if they get close enough for infection by the virus. These randomized codes will then be used as the basis of tracking all the people a person has been in contact with during the day and if that person or anyone they’ve been in contact with are diagnosed as having COVID-19 , they can share an alert of that and everyone they’ve been in contact with will be notified that they’ve been in contact with an infected person and encouraged to quarantine or seek medical assistance. It’s a novel idea, utilizing mostly already existing technologies and apparently gaining praise among Americans because it requires consent for usage as well. It will first be rolled out as an app co-developed with health professionals, but an API for both iOS and Android will make sure every phone with BLE and compatible iOS and Android versions (Android Marshmallow so far for example) will allows everyone’s phone to receive and transmit the information as well. It’s all a seemingly complete system if executed correctly and everyone opts in the right way. And that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, in fact ever since the idea was revealed both Apple and Google have been working tirelessly to communicate all the perks and the limitations of the system, just so they could create an air of transparency as to how this idea can help people and where it falls short.
So could or should such a system be deployed here in Zimbabwe, especially with similar systems having found success in countries like Singapore? Well, if this was a purely idealistic question of whether this should be done then yes, it should , as soon as possible even, but unfortunately it would likely be only a fraction as effective here as it would be in the US , and that’s the main reason for it likely shouldn’t be a main effort in countries like ours. You see Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is a considerably recent technology standard , with widespread support in smartphones only beginning around 2014 , and as surprising as it is, even here in Zimbabwe not every person has a compatible iOS or Android device that either a) has Bluetooth radios that support BLE or b) have the updated system requirements for BLE support such as the aforementioned Android Marshmallow or likely iOS 10. Then there’s the case that this is going to be a project with a heavy amount of US health boards and professionals, along with requiring their go-ahead for deployment.
Hence if you haven’t gotten it already, it’s very USA-centric. to the point where it’s unknown if Europe might implement anything similar. This also matters when it comes to the cost of developing this app, as Apple and Google obviously haven’t considered the costs of deploying resources all the way here yet, which in this case would likely be required considering this isn’t the kind of system where you want to miss out on software updates. And of course there’s close to no way our own government would likely shell out the money for such a kind of system unless it was deemed necessary by WHO or the UN , which it is not. And there’s even lifestyle considerations as well in the case of things like Bluetooth Low Energy still essentially being Bluetooth technology and people have never been a fan of how that tech finishes one’s battery. The app and update’s rollout structures are also up in the air right now, meaning that even things in the US aren’t exactly figured out, and thus a solution like this would require more time before we decide to jump in too. However, overall it’s still not one we can implement, and honestly not the one we need, most right now. That would still be standard traditional contact tracing ,as well as a planned procedural rollout program for people who will eventually go to work. Add that to preventive clothing for health workers, ventilators at Wilkins Hospital and more hospitals around the country being equipped to deal with this, and you have an answer that most Zimbabweans would benefit from, not just a select few. Which is not to undermine the work Google and Apple are doing, after all this alone shows tech companies coming together for the greater good, but there’s definitely a way’s to go before their solution can help everyone all over the world, and for now we just have to be fine with that.