/ 17 April 2020

Digital innovation in the Covid-19 era

Today there are many apps that enable direct video consultations with doctors or provide automated responses to a user’s questions about symptoms and treatment. (Cyril Ncube)
Today there are many apps that enable direct video consultations with doctors or provide automated responses to a user’s questions about symptoms and treatment. (Cyril Ncube)


While the human race has endured many pandemics in its past, never before have we been so well-equipped to manage and understand them. The unrelenting pace at which our technologies have evolved over the past two decades has given us a toolset that is of unimaginable value, not just in terms of the creation of vaccines and the analysis of the virus’s makeup, but also in the critical social fields that led to its spread. 

Online stores’ extensive infrastructure allow people to safely isolate while still receiving essential goods, and the burgeoning industry of medical technology enables more accurate tracking of the disease and its spread, even tracing the paths that Covid-19 has taken to reach international shores. 

Companies such as Takealot and even delivery entities such as OrderIn and MrD have built their businesses on the premise that their customers would rather shop from home than venture outside. Now, it seems like these core concepts may save lives by minimising contact with others and mitigating the spread of this deadly virus — an unforeseen outcome, but a welcome contribution to the ways in which we can do our part to flatten the curve. 

Professor Alex Broadbent, director of the Institute for the Future of Knowledge and professor of philosophy at the University of Johannesburg. (Daily Motion)
A police officer orders a vendor to leave after stocking fresh produce from a vegetable market in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on March 31 2020, on the second day of a lockdown directed by Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa to curb the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus. (ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP)

Significant progress has also been made in the realm of online consultations. Vague, hypochondriac definitions found online in years past are no longer the norm. Instead, we have medical aids working to make telemedicine more accessible, and a variety of applications offering direct video consultations with doctors alongside informative, rational symptom lists.

Babusi Nyoni, the founder of Sila Health, has created an app uniquely suited to the African market: Sis Joyce. It uses a chatbot powered by artificial intelligence to provide intermediate access to basic healthcare — free of charge — through platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, both of which are light on mobile data. In layman’s terms, the app creates automated responses to a user’s questions and while it’s not a medical counsel itself, it’s informed by thorough medical knowledge. 

When asked about the impact of such applications in the context of Covid-19, Nyoni notes that Coronavirus tests are usually not widely available in developing countries. “Our platform provides online assistance to people who believe they may have Coronavirus symptoms, to help keep low-risk patients from clogging up hospitals. We do this by disseminating information on the virus through WhatsApp and Facebook Chat, enabling users to assess their symptoms through our chat-based World Health Organisation (WHO) symptom checker, and collecting geographic and human network information for cases identified as potential positives to assist health departments with contact tracing.” 

Sila Health has already begun working closely with the city of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe to augment its Covid-19 response. HealthAlert, a tool developed by South Africa’s own Praekelt.org and used by the government to respond to user queries about Covid-19 in multiple languages, replicates a triage process and provide real-time data insights to decision-makers, has been adopted by the WHO to bring information to two billion people.

Given the priority of flattening the curve, these tools become indispensable, saving valuable resources from being used on those not in need. Most who contract Covid-19 are urged to remain at home in self-isolation to prevent further spread. Not only do online consultations help put minds at ease, but they also stop people from passing the virus on to medical personnel.

Tracking of the disease has been impressively orchestrated, with everyone from large corporations to individual developers creating tools to collate and share critical information with the world. These kinds of unprecedented tools have helped nations such as our own better prepare for the onset and duration of the pandemic, at both personal and governmental levels.

The digitally-driven era in which we find ourselves may be rife with problems of its own, but it provides us with an invaluable ability to cope with a disease such as this. Whether it’s the critical services that allow people to buy medical supplies and other essentials, the tools that let us better understand the disease, or even the simple ability to connect with other people in these times of isolation, there’s no doubt that online technology has provided us with another means of survival.