COVID Alert SA: How does Mzansi's new 'contact tracing app' work?

South Africa has unleashed a new weapon in the fight against coronavirus, and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize believes that it holds the key to defeating this deadly disease. The COVID Alert SA app is now available for free download – and here's everything you need to know about the contact tracing programme.

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing is a process used to slow the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19. It enables people to record who they have been in direct contact with over the past 14 days, and if they have possibly been infected with COVID-19 as a result. Doing this manually takes time, and there's always a risk of missing close contacts – technology speeds this up.

Everyone in South Africa who has a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone can access this app. COVID Alert SA makes contact tracing happen quickly and efficiently, by monitoring the proximity of smartphones – rather the actual location of the devices. Countries such as Germany and South Korea, with critically acclaimed COVID responses, have world-class 'track and trace' apps that have accelerated their coronavirus recoveries.

COVID Alert SA – how does it work?

  • COVID Alert SA is built on the exposure notification Application Programming Interface (API), securing user privacy.[*]Using Bluetooth, the app emits a randomly generated code picked by other users when two phones come into proximity of one another.[*]Each user builds an "encounter history" of those they have been in contact with. At no point is anyone's identity revealed.[*]When a user tests positive, they are requested to report their diagnosis anonymously in the COVID Alert SA app.[*]All other users with whom they have been in contact for the past 14 days will immediately be notified of their exposure.[*]It allows a greater number of contacts to be traced more rapidly, including strangers who may not be able to recall everything. If you are alerted by the app, it will advise you what steps to take next.

  • Why do I need to download the new contact tracing app?

    Guarang Tanna is one of the brains behind this public health initiative. He has explained that the app has the potential to save many, many lives and will be the driving force that goes towards getting South Africa 'back to normality'.

    "This is a crucial public health intervention to help us suppress COVID-19 and prevent resurgence. It works best when many people download the app. We request everyone to download the app, and those confirmed positive to report their diagnosis so that their contacts can be notified."
    The app is designed to reduce the impact on the health system and save lives while preserving privacy at scale. For every 100 infections, we are able to prevent using this technology, we could prevent as many as 15-20 hospital admissions and, save two lives.Gaurang Tanna, who led the app development team within the Department of Health.

    How do I download the COVID Alert SA app?

    After officially launching on Wednesday morning, the app is now available for download. You can access both the Google Play and Apple Store by visiting this link – and the prompts to download the system are next to the explainer video.

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