As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread around the world, governments have taken unique measures in combating the virus.

One of the more popular solutions we’ve seen is track and trace programmes. Track and trace programmes allow a government to see how a person infected with COVID-19 moved and more importantly, who they may have unknowingly infected.

South Africa is set to become one such nation as health officials and government scramble to fight the pandemic locally.

So who is working on this track and trace programme?

Telkom, together with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) will be collaborating to develop the system.

In a release sent out by Telkom it was said the system “is in line with global best practice promoted by the World Health Organisation”.

“At Telkom we are deeply concerned about what the spread of this pandemic may mean for ordinary South Africans and for the already overstretched health sector. We are privileged to be able to contribute to this solution which we believe will help to significantly contain the spread of new infections,” Telkom group chief executive, Sipho Maseko said in a statement.

The network operator added that the system will collate multiple data sources including data from a Geographic Information System.

“The track and trace system collates multiple data sources such as GIS to track an infected person’s exposure and who they may have unknowingly exposed to the virus to. This reduces the current reliance on the patient’s own recollections of who they may have exposed unknowingly and enables the CSIR to contact people who were in the same proximity as the patient,” said Telkom.

But where exactly will this data come from? To answer that we need to look at regulations published by minister of communications digital technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams [PDF].

Section 8 of those regulations, titled Individual Track and Trace reads:

“8.1 The Electronic Communication Network Service (ENCS) and Electronic Communication Service Licensees, internet and digital sector in general, must provide location-based services in collaboration with the relevant authorities identified to support designated departments to assist and combat the spread of COVID-19.

8.2 The South African Post Office must make available its national address system and any applicable database to assist the relevant authorities identified to track and trace individuals that have been infected and such other persons that may have been in direct contact with such infected persons. A database may be correlated with other sources from government and private sector.”

Naturally and understandably a few people’s backs went up at this news. While we understand that the current situation calls for extreme measures, one has to hope that government will cease the tracking and tracing of individuals once the COVID-19 pandemic has been dealt with.

It’s something that civil liberty organisations, non-profit organisations and we in the media will have to keep close tabs on both during and after the pandemic.

In some areas however, the Department of Health will deploy trackers to trace primary contacts and test secondary contacts if need be.

In order to assist these trackers, Samsung South Africa will donate 1 500 handsets so as to assist with information gathering and tracing.

“What we face is a generation-defining moment, a challenge unlike any other. However, our belief in Africa and its people remains steadfast and strong. I know, working together, we can and we will rise to this challenge,” Samsung South Africa chief executive officer and president, Sung Yoon said in a statement.

Right now we feel that extreme measures are necessary to fight COVID-19 but it’s vital that this track and trace solution is used ethically and not abused.

We live in hope that this is the case.