Using tech to take on Covid-19Covid-19 has been the source of widespread social and economic devastation, but also a catalyst for exciting technological innovation.Article by Sven Hugo - 23 April 2020 - Read Time: 3 min
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If Covid-19 had occurred 20 years earlier our current dire situation would have been considerably worse. Technology has enabled the migration of entire workforces to home offices, and the private and public sectors have banded together to push innovative technological solutions to tackle the latest global crisis.

Here are a few ways in which it’s used by South African companies.

A robot that’s the eyes and ears of a doctor

Enter Quintin. Computer tablet for a face, microphone where his mouth should be, metal pole body, and two wheels for feet. It’s a bit taller than your average 10-year-old, and uses gyroscope and accelerometer sensors in its base to stay upright. It can be controlled remotely with a desktop, tablet or smartphone. Speaking through Quintin and seeing through its ‘eyes’, doctors communicate with patients without having to be in the same room.

Quintin is made by the California-based Double Robotics (so called because it’s a robot that acts as one’s double) and is used largely in retirement homes and hospitals, such as Cape Town’s Tygerberg Hospital, where specialists are currently limited, as is the case in the rest of the country.

Quintin and the hospital’s doctors share the workload of Covid-19 patients in ICU. Coenie Koegelenberg, Professor of Pulmonology at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), says, ‘The odds of at least one, or all of us, falling ill are high, so we need to realistically plan for what could happen. If any of the specialists gets the virus and is unable to physically go to work, they will still be able to function remotely using the robot.’

3D-printed medical equipment

German-based automation technology company Sew-Eurodrive has joined a national initiative in South Africa that uses its 3D-printing technology to manufacture face shields for healthcare workers help alleviate the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

The initiative is led by 3D-printing company Additive Manufacturing Solutions (AMS) and has, to date, produced 15 000 face shields for healthcare providers, such as Netcare and the Department of Health.

Tracking the virus

Wessel Oosthuizen, associate director and AI lead at Deloitte, says that multinational organisations like Google and Apple are collaborating to deliver a track-and-trace solution to billions of people worldwide, helping them to determine if they have come into contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus.

Companies use either cellphone location data, or voluntary check-in data using QR codes at various shops, areas and apartment buildings to track people.

‘Track and trace has probably been one of the most successful tools in combating the virus, especially in high-density countries, such as South Korea and Hong Kong,’ says Oosthuizen.

It has also been very effective in areas where the public has access to the data. ‘This publicly available track-and-trace solution is viewed by many as one of the main reasons that South Korea was able to contain the virus and not become the new epicentre,’ he explains.

A South African WhatsApp platform goes global

If you’re one of the South Africans who has WhatsApped ‘hi’ to 0600-123456, the government’s Covid-19 information service, you might want to know that this platform has been adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO).

It was developed by Praekelt.org, an NPO based in Johannesburg, who had previously created a similar service for the Department of Health on maternal wellbeing called MomConnect.

After the WHO rolled out the service, which it calls WHO Health Alert, on 20 March 2020, more than 10 million people subscribed within three days. It is used in much the same way as in South Africa – to communicate essential updates, information on symptoms and how to protect yourself, vital contact numbers and local statistics in countries.

Sven Hugo
Freelance journalist and former editor of Risk Africa.

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