Contact tracing in South Africa

Policy Brief 4, 2020

In Policy Brief 4 RIA investigates contact tracing in South Africa. Contact tracing alone is only able to curb the spread of COVID-19 if we identify 50% of positive cases, they are informed and quarantined, ​and ​60% of their contacts traced within 48 hours.

Most automated contact tracing solutions require smartphone ownership, internet access and Bluetooth technology. With only half of the rural population and around 65% of the urban population owning a smartphone, a national contact tracing system dependent on smartphone ownership alone would leave a large section of the population locked out of the contact tracing programme as well as undermine the effectiveness of the programme itself.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to contact tracing. South Africa needs a contact tracing approach that blends different technologies and manual approaches and interacts with other efforts to contain the pandemic. The South African Department of Health should continue with manual contact tracing augmented by the COVIDConnect and COVID Alert applications.

While the COVID Alert app and the Google Play Services library that is required to run the contact tracing system on Android phones should be zero-rated to ensure that income level does not determine the likelihood of using the app, this may prove hard to do on a technical level. Data rebates for installing the app or free data bundles for quarantine/isolation and working from home could be a way of incentivising use.

Contact tracing regimes must all be privacy-preserving and should be private and secure by design. There should be security audits as well as plans for deletion of the data after the pandemic or anonymisation of the data if it is to be used for research, this should extend to contact tracing efforts outside of the public sector as well.

Suggested citation

Johnson, D., Comninos, A. & Gillwald, A. (2020): Contact Tracing in South Africa (Policy Brief No. 4). Research ICT Africa.