Western Cape has piloted Covid-19 track-and-trace system
The department’s chief director of Policy Co-ordination and Integrated Planning Milani Wolmarans told the Western Cape legislature’s Ad Hoc Committee on Covid-19 that the system recently announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa was a digitised contact tracing system.
Wolmarans had been invited to brief the committee on matters of citizen surveillance for Covid-19 tracking and tracing.
Wolmarans said: “We have moved from the current manual contact tracing, which has health workers completely overwhelmed. It is a process to assist the tracers in a digitised format.
“Currently the Department of Health is not involved in a digitised system that is a surveillance programme. To put it in other words, there is no system where we are monitoring the movement or location of any citizen in the country.
“There was an attempt earlier to develop a system that would allow us to do that. However, the technical complexities and the privacy concerns around this and the protection of that privacy had us move towards a more active base and contract tracing service, rather than a surveillance system using the data of the mobile networking operators.”
It was “third time lucky” for the Ad Hoc Committee’s attempts to get a briefing from the national Department of Health on the issue.
After two failed attempts, including one in which invited officials failed to pitch after a mix up regarding the national department responsible for this function, the department finally sent Wolmarans.
Before the briefing began, committee chairperson Mireille Wenger made a distinction between the concepts of citizen surveillance for contact tracing and contact tracing itself.
Wenger said: “What our meeting today concerns is that of citizen surveillance by the national Health Department in order to trace contacts. So we are interested in the digital system and the surveillance part, as well as the database where the information is held as per the regulations.”
In March, Communications, Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams announced that cellphone data would be utilised to curb the spread of Covid-19. Subsequently, in April the lockdown regulations were amended to allow the government, via the Department of Health, to “develop and maintain a national database to allow the tracing of people who were known or reasonably suspected to have come into contact with anyone known or reasonably suspected to have contracted Covid-19”.
This is the Covid-19 Tracing Database which is to be kept confidential and will include the names and surnames of those who have been tested for Covid-19, their ID numbers, addresses, cellphone numbers, the outcome of their Covid-19 tests and, importantly, the details of their known or suspected contacts.@MwangiGithahu