COVIDConnect in South Africa – What it is, and what it isn’t

South Africans recently started receiving SMS messages from the Department of Health regarding their coronavirus test results or whether they may have been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

These SMS messages direct people to access a service called COVIDConnect, which raised the question: What exactly is COVIDConnect and how secure is it?

“COVIDConect is not an app. It’s a service that is offered purely through SMS and WhatsApp,” a spokesperson for the Department of Health stated during an online Telkom BCX press conference held on Wednesday.

BCX is one of the partners that worked with the Department of Health to develop the COVIDConnect platform, along with the Praekelt Foundation.

The department said that one of the reasons it chose WhatsApp and SMS over a mobile app is that they wanted to reach as many South Africans as possible and get the desired use of the system at scale.

BCX CEO Jonas Bogoshi said that COVIDConnect complements and contributes to the Department of Health’s broader response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is just one part of the department’s much broader response. I don’t want this system to be elevated to more than what it is doing,” Bogoshi said.

“In a nutshell, COVIDConnect is an integrated application system that assists the Department of Health to manage and contain the spread of the coronavirus.”

COVIDConnect lets people screen themselves by answering a symptoms questionnaire, allows the department to quickly disseminate results to people who were tested, and lets the department manage positive patients and track their declared contacts.

“It is used broadly by health workers and also provides analytics for government,” Bogoshi said.

What is COVIDConnect?

In simple terms:

  • To the public, COVIDConnect is a chatbot. This chatbot will inform patients of their coronavirus test results, capture the details of people that the patient was in close contact with, and provide those contacts with the information they need to self-quarantine and get tested, as appropriate. The chatbot also monitors the symptoms of COVID-19 positive patients and close contacts on a daily basis.
  • To the department of health, COVIDConnect is a database and analytics tool to help its contact tracing and exposure notification efforts.

COVIDConnect does not make use of the Bluetooth-based exposure notification system developed by Google and Apple for use on Android and iOS devices.

How does COVIDConnect work?

During the media briefing, BCX gave a demonstration of how the COVIDConnect chatbot works and how data is aggregated for use by healthcare workers.

If you got a test for the coronavirus, or have been in close contact with someone who tested positive, your experience with the system will begin with one of the SMS messages shown in the screenshots above.

Should you take a test for the coronavirus, you will be directed to WhatsApp the word “results” to 0820468553, or click a link that will do it for you.

The chatbot will ask you to accept some terms and conditions and verify your identity by entering your date of birth.

You will be asked to provide details of your symptoms and comorbidities, and the chatbot will provide you with appropriate advice based on your responses.

If you test positive for the coronavirus, you will be able to declare close contacts for the Department of Health’s contact tracing teams to follow up with. You can provide such contact information by dropping a WhatsApp contact into the chat, or by manually entering it.

Should you be identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus, you will be directed to send the word “check” to 0600123456, or click a link that will do it for you.

Much like the chatbot for people who test positive for the coronavirus, you will be asked to provide details of your symptoms and comorbidities. The chatbot will then advise you on how to proceed.

Whether you are a patient who has tested positive or a close contact, the system will ask for personal information such as your address and where you will be self-isolating.

To provide your address, you can drop a map pin or manually type in an address. The address is automatically completed by Google Location services and the patient or contact asked to confirm that it was autocompleted correctly.

To avoid future scams that may try and pretend to be official Department of Health messages, ensure that you are only communicating with one of the two numbers given above: 0820468553 or 0600123456.

All of this information is aggregated into a database for use by the department’s contact tracing teams and decision-makers.

A screenshot of the dashboard view of COVIDConnect
A screenshot of the dashboard view of COVIDConnect (click to enlarge)

Data privacy

One of the major questions that arose during the BCX presentation was the matter of data privacy.

BCX stated that it worked closely with the Department of Health and the former Constitutional Court Justice Kate O’Regan to ensure that people’ personal information is protected and that they comply with the various regulations.

O’Regan was appointed the designated judge for ensuring that privacy and personal information is protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The data set is in a secure database and is entirely encrypted,” a spokesperson for BCX stated.

“The only people that have got access to that data is the National Department of Health. It’s not shared with anyone or any other third parties.”

This data will be held for the duration of the national state of disaster.

During the demo, BCX showed that there was a feature to export certain data to an Excel spreadsheet, which MyBroadband queried.

BCX stated that access to that part of the system is only made available to team leads at a provincial and district level.

“Anyone downloading the Excel lists would only do so for administrative purposes and would keep it on their computer. These computers are provided by the government and will follow the necessary protocol. Each province has their own privacy policy and different controls in place to protect data on the individual computer,” BCX said.

Now read: No, Google and Apple have not installed a COVID-19 tracing app on your phone

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COVIDConnect in South Africa – What it is, and what it isn’t