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Technology can manage health risks of Covid-19

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The Corona pandemic (Covid-19) has continued to ground the social and economic activities of billions of people and shocked the interconnected global economy. As scientists rush to develop a vaccine, countries are locking down their population as they try to flatten their curves for the deaths and new infections. So far, more than 82,000 people have died and about 1.5 million infected in more than 200 countries including Kenya.

Kenya has never been exposed to a plague of this magnitude and the healthcare system is facing a potential crisis. The country has about 500 intensive care beds and 50 per cent of them are in Nairobi. The ratio of doctor to citizens is 1:16,000, which is far below the world recommendation of 1:300.

To contain the spread of the virus, the government has adopted various measures, including imposing a dawn-to-dusk nationwide curfew and restricting movement of people in and out of hard-hit counties. Although the process of tracing contacts of suspected cases and isolating them has borne fruit, it is faced with a myriad of challenges. It is resource intensive and slow with cases of people failing to quarantine, practise social distancing and sneaking in and out of the restricted areas. If not properly done, untraced infected persons can be disastrous. An example is the South Korean case where a single patient was said to be responsible for over 60 per cent of the entire country’s infections.

Technology, however, offers a glimpse of hope in tackling and coping with the pandemic. Kenya has developed policy and legal framework that has created a robust environment to support technology.

Use of smartphone applications, data analytics and artificial intelligence would make finding and treating people with Covid-19 far more efficient as evidently applied in China. For example, everyone under quarantine in Hongkong is expected to wear location-based gadget.

Kenya has highest number of mobile phone subscription in Africa. Each mobile device and its user are uniquely identified and could help in tracking persons of interest. Further, smart and wearable devices that monitor body vitals can be integrated with mobile phones and the data remotely shared with hospitals.

There are numerous functional CCTV camera capturing millions of images in major urban areas and could help identify possible contacts of interest. Face recognition and infrared temperature detection techniques can be installed in critical buildings to curb the pandemic. Like in China, Kenya could mine mobile transactions to quickly identify locations and contacts of interest.

There is increased demand for technological solutions that allow for contactless functioning in the time of lockdowns and social isolation.

With local talents, it is possible to design and develop simple solutions such as e-health systems, robots and drones.

The Ministry of Health could partner with innovators to quickly develop a colour-coded health rating system that assign any of three colours ­– green, yellow or red, depending on persons recent travel, county, age and medical history. The colour code is scanned by a simple Quick Response Code system to allow those with green code to access public places. This system could help generate a health map with data visualization to react to new emerging clusters of this threat.

Local innovators should be inspired to develop simple robots to take temperature, spray disinfectants, dispense hand sanitisers in risky environment. Kenya could install intelligent-powered infrared system in critical facilities such as shopping malls to quickly screen temperature of large population. While drones can quickly and safely transport both medical equipment and patient samples in risky environments, saving time. Drones powered with facial recognition and loudspeakers can warn residents to wear masks as well as enforce curfew.

Technology reduces physical contacts in many sectors. Some universities such as Strathmore are offering e-learning services.

With free Internet offered by Google Baloons project in Kenya and TV broadcast, school pupils have an opportunity to learn safely. There are many telecommuting platforms such as Office 365 that make working at home a reality. Churches can conduct their activities on the digital platforms.

Paper-based transactions including cash payments are deemed risky. The government is encouraging the use of mobile money transactions with no charges for low-valued transactions. Most public and private entities are encouraging paperless transactions to avoid physical contact.

Technology has disrupted business models that offer convenient services. With several e-commerce platforms, high penetration of e-wallets and penetration of Internet in Kenya, a consumer can shop any time and purchase essentials, which can be safely delivered to customer. The use of hail applications, such as Uber, advise whether the driver and the car have been exposed to the virus.

Technology is crucial in providing a safe platform for sharing information in a risky environment and professionals who may have contracted the disease could continue offering their services. Technology facilitates telemedicine services as seen with the new e-health platform recently rolled out to safely screen and treat patients in remote places in Kenya.

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