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S. Africa to Tap Phone Data to Ready for Virus Case Spikes (1)

March 28, 2020, 6:58 AM

South Africa’s biggest mobile phone companies have been asked to help track the movement of people days before a national lock-down as authorities grow concerned that they may spread the coronavirus to remote parts of the country.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases, which is spearheading the government’s response to the outbreak, wants the information so that it can better prepare for the next areas most at risk. So far, most confirmed cases have been in or near major urban areas and linked to affluent travelers returning from Europe.

The three-day gap between President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of the shutdown and its implementation gave people ample time to travel. Many South Africans work in Gauteng, the economic hub in which Johannesburg is located. The province has about 40% of all the country’s 1,170 confirmed cases.

“One of the unintended consequences of a lock-down is migration and that means transmission,” said Nandi Siegfried, an independent clinical epidemiology consultant in Cape Town. “The whole point of a lock-down is to restrict movement.”

Case Spike

Remote areas of the country that have so far been spared the virus, including rural parts of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, could be affected and see a spike in cases in two to three weeks, health experts say.

The request “is for high-level aggregated data on how people are moving to help curb the spread of Covid-19,” said Byron Kennedy, a spokesman for Vodacom Group Ltd., the biggest provider of mobile phone services to South Africans. “This does not include personal information or information that identifies a specific individual” and won’t breach privacy laws, he said.

MTN Group Ltd., Vodacom’s biggest rival, said it will also avail its “mobility information” to the government.

Still, it would have been difficult to put the lock-down in place more quickly, said Kerrin Begg, a senior lecturer in health leadership and management at Stellenbosch University.

“This is always a balancing act; there is no right answer,” Begg said.

NICD communications manager Sinenhlanhla Jimoh and Presidency spokeswoman Khusela Diko didn’t immediately answer calls made to their mobile phones.

(Adds confirmed case number in third paragraph)

To contact the reporters on this story:
Janice Kew in Johannesburg at jkew4@bloomberg.net;
Loni Prinsloo in Johannesburg at lprinsloo3@bloomberg.net;
Antony Sguazzin in Johannesburg at asguazzin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Eric Pfanner at epfanner1@bloomberg.net

Pauline Bax, John Viljoen

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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