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Tracking and isolating COVID-19 cases with WiFi technology

The same solutions that enable free WiFi in malls can be applied to help government track and trace potential infections.

Quentin Daffarn, MD at UC-Wireless.
Quentin Daffarn, MD at UC-Wireless.

As cases of COVID-19 infection in South Africa increase and the country worries about the movement of people helping to spread the virus further, the question is: How can government effectively track this movement in order to trace the path of the spread of this disease?

According to Quentin Daffarn, MD at UC-Wireless, the same solutions often implemented in shopping malls and municipal spaces to provide free WiFi connectivity hold the potential to enable much more effective tracking and tracing of the movement of people, thus helping to prevent the spread of the virus.

“If one looks at the global map of the spread of COVID-19, it’s easy to see that Africa remains behind the infection curve of regions like the United States, Europe and China. This means that we still have time to put in place solutions that can enable us to further ‘flatten the curve’ of infections here,” he says.

“It must be understood that even as we go into lockdown, there remains a definite need for government to be able to track and trace people’s movements, both in terms of understanding where an infected person has been and who they have been in contact with, as well as to determine whether people are adhering to the lockdown.”

The hotspots he is talking about, continues Daffarn, would be ideal to implement in hospitals, clinics, laboratory testing facilities, transport hubs, ports of entry and any other public places where people may go or have to visit. The portal can be used to capture details of people and verifiable contact numbers by having them log on to a national portal that is present via a medical facility’s WiFi, or any of the locations mentioned, and asking them to register and to provide a name, identity number and address, linking this directly to their mobile phone.

In fact, he suggests, government could put national crisis management rules in place to compel people visiting a medical facility to provide such information. People and their devices will be recognised upon return visits to these locations, thereby creating a traceable record of times and places visited by people.

“There are still uninfected people who will need to go to hospital for different health reasons, or to any other public venue where an infected individual may have been. Therefore, the concern about potential cross-infection is real, especially since clinical trials have shown that the virus survives for up to 72 hours on surfaces. With a solution like this in place, it becomes possible to track where any infected person is or has been when they are in range of the hotspots, and through this, understand who they have been in contact with, and be able to track these people too for testing purposes and quarantine, which is critical to reducing cross-infection.”

“At the same time, because it provides statistics of both new and returning users, even if these users do not actually join the WiFi, it allows the government to determine longer trends and should enable them to understand in which locations people are not properly observing lockdown procedures, so that controls can be introduced to lower the risk in these key locations.”

The real beauty of this solution, he points out, particularly in light of the relatively low infection rates currently found across Africa, is that it is extremely quick to deploy, and is also reasonably inexpensive when compared with the potential cost of the economic disaster of ineffective containment.

Most critical of all is that the solution can also be deployed in a portable manner. So, it could even be implemented at roadblocks policing the lockdown, or in public transport vehicles, some of which still need to operate, where they can play a big role in also tracking who a potentially infected person has had contact with. Remember, he states, although you may not know the person sitting next to you in the taxi, the solution will.

“What makes this solution ideal for this crisis is that it not only recognises unique individuals and highlights all the places they have visited, thanks to presence analytics, it also centralises this data, because all the hotspots are linked to same back-end system. This allows for cross-venue analytics, enabling authorities to view the statistics in a top-down approach and analyse the places individuals are frequenting, paying particular attention to those areas where large numbers may have to gather, such as at hospitals.

“In addition, the solution is designed to detect WiFi-capable phones even if these aren’t active, making management of venues simpler and more effective, because you can really see how many people are in these venues.”

Daffarn suggests that the solution offers even more potential, in that when users log on to the WiFi system, it’s possible for the government to provide the latest virus updates or other critical information on this log-in page. This means that not only does it create a database of traceable, trackable and verified individuals, but it can also keep them properly informed about whatever information government deems necessary to disseminate.

When a person returns to any location after having previously registered, it’s also able to gather additional information if they suspect they have the virus, if anyone in their family has it and other key additional ongoing polling questions.

“There is no doubt that this is the gravest crisis humanity has faced in many decades, and I believe we all have to play our part in the efforts to overcome this virus. It is my belief that this solution offers enormous potential, especially to a continent where infection rates remain low enough that tracking and tracing can still be an effective countermeasure. The disaster of not doing something in time can be crippling to the African continent, not to mention the global impact.

“To this end, we have partners and enough resources to implement these solutions extremely fast, under the banner of essential services, within hours at any venue that government chooses to roll out these hotspots, where there is existing Internet, or mobile data platforms,” he concludes.

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