The Corona Pandemic (COVID 19) has continued to ground the social and economic activities of billions of people all over the world. The effects of the pandemic has shocked the interconnected global economy and is much worse compared to the past global crisis, including the financial crisis. According to the World Economic Forum, the global manufacturing capability has significantly decreased as countries battle down the pandemic. As scientists rush to develop a vaccine for the pandemic, countries are locking down their population as they try to flatten their curves for the deaths and new infections. As of today (14th April 2020), more than 120,000 lives have been lost, and more than 1.9 million confirmed cases are being handled in more than 200 countries. The first case was reported in December 2019 in Wuhan Province of China.
The statistics of the affected countries indicate that the disease significantly spread to hundreds or thousands of persons within a month after confirmation of the first case. In cognizance of this, the Kenyan government has restricted movement of people and vehicles in the hot spot counties and a national wide curfew to contain the spread of the virus as the number of confirmed cases rose to 208 by yesterday (13th April 2020).
As Kenya and the rest of the world grapples with the socio-economic effects of the pandemic, technology offers a glimpse of hope to tackle the pandemic. Use of smartphone apps, data analytics and artificial intelligence would make finding and treating people with this highly contagious disease far more efficient as evidently applied in China, Singapore, South Korea and United States of America.
Kenya has never been exposed to a major plague and hence the country has never had opportunity to use technology in curbing the spread of diseases of this magnitude. There are rare opportunities amidst this health crisis. Local universities, research institutions, innovation hubs and manufacturers have opportunity to innovatively provide with essential health and medical products. Recently in the local media, some local talents from Kenyatta University demonstrated that they have potential to create air ventilators that are highly needed to manage the critical cases of COVID 19. Kenya has potential to create more innovations to minimize the peak of the pandemic, thus increasing resilience to avoid overwhelming the health system.
Kenya has developed policy and legal framework that has created robust environment to support technology. For instance, the Ministry of health has developed ehealth frameworks and in particular the Kenya Health Policy emphasizing the role of technology in addressing the health challenges. The Digital Economy Blueprint (https://ca.go.ke/the-digital-economy-blueprint/) provides a clear roadmap for sectors such as health to harness opportunities arising from the digital economy. The Broadband Strategy (https://ca.go.ke/downloads/publications/national-broadband-strategy/) is critical in providing guidelines for affordable, reliable and available internet connectivity for the rural and urban areas.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) the Corona Pandemic is overwhelming the national health care systems as seen in Italy, Spain and the United States of America and would do so in Kenya if the number of patients continue rising. According to the Ministry of Health, Kenya has about 500 Intensive Care beds and 50% of them are in Nairobi. Further, the ratio of doctor to citizens is 1:5,000, far below the world recommendation of 1:300, hence constraining the healthcare. There is dire need to go beyond what physical facilities can offer. Technology will help in optimizing the few medical resources available in the country.
One of the strategies employed in Kenya to contain the spread of the pandemic is to identify and trace all contacts that have interacted with a patient. As reported by the Ministry of Health, this approach has registered some degree of success since over 4,000 contacts have been established and over 3,000 of them tested for the virus. The surveillance team interrogate the patients in order to physically track persons of interest. Without technology, it can be resource intensive, slow and overwhelming tracking contacts and especially if the patient travelled far and wide infecting hundreds of persons. Technology assisted in tracking contacts on interest in South Korea where one patient was responsible for over 60% of all confirmed cases in that country.
Kenya could gain more if technology could be used to coordinate and monitor some of the measures from the Ministry of Health. It has become extremely difficult to enforce self quarantine. Similarly, practising social distance in Kenya is proving to be a challenge especially in social places such as shopping malls, markets, restaurants as well as in public transport. Without technology, it is difficult to manage the population along the porous borders.
Technology is being used to enforce self-quarantine in Hong Kong through use of location-based gadgets that everyone under quarantine is expected to wear. In Massachusetts (USA) and Singapore, tracking of contacts has been simplified through mobile applications where anyone can proactively check whether they have been in the geo locations visited by the patients. In Kenya, the mobile phone ownership rate is over 100%. Each mobile phone is identified through a unique number (IMEI- International Mobile Equipment Identity) and each user is required to register with their National Identity Card details. All registered users are issued with International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) by a service provider. With mobile applications management platform, the law enforcers can track all persons of interest including those under self-quarantine. Further, Internet of Things (IoT) products such as smart and wearable devices that monitor temperature, blood pressure and heart beat can be integrated with mobile phones and remotely track and send vital health information of the patients to the health facilities.
Kenya could benefit from big data and facial recognition technologies already available. There are numerous CCTV cameras capturing millions of images in most public places such as shopping malls, bus terminals and major buildings in major urban areas. Kenya has an approved National CCTV Policy which would be critical in further identifying possible contacts of a particular patient. Where possible, the CCTV cameras could be integrated with face recognition and infrared temperature detection techniques to quickly screen and identify persons of interest. Innovations gearing towards making use of this valuable data should be promoted to accurately recognize those failing to quarantine themselves. China is heavily relying on data mining techniques to extract location and other critical data of the patients. Similarly, here in Kenya, mining useful data from mobile transactions be it in a supermarket or refuelling at gas station would shorten the time taken to identify locations where the patient visited and this would in turn guide the process of tracking down the possible contacts.
Data mining techniques have potential to accurately isolate contacts of interest that would take months to gather manually. Locally, the Ministry of Health should partner with service providers to quickly develop some quick solutions. For instance, software engineers can quickly design and implement a color coded health rating system to track Kenyans by assigning any of three colors – green, yellow or red depending on their recent travel, their counties, age and medical history. The color code is scanned by a simple Quick Response Code system to allow those with green code to access public places. China is using a similar system in more than 200 Chinese cities. The color coded health rating system could help to generate Health maps with data visualization to track where the virus has been most densely found, giving a visual to statistics that can help detect and allow for organizations and governments to react to the health threat.
As countries race to curb the spread of COVID 19, there is increase demand for technological solutions that allow for contactless functioning in the time of lockdowns and social isolation. There are global lessons that Kenya could learn to curb plagues of this magnitude in future. With many local universities offering computer related programmes, Kenya stands to gain from local skills to design and develop simple technological solutions such as robots and drones in future. Universities could be challenged to develop robots that can prepare and deliver meals at hospitals, doubling up as waiters in restaurants, spraying disinfectants and cleaning, and dispensing hand sanitizers. For instance, China is using robots in hospitals to perform diagnosis and conducting thermal imaging and transporting the medical samples. While drones can safely transport both medical equipment and patient samples in risky environment. Drones could save time, enhance the speed of delivery and prevent the risk of samples being contaminated. In China, drones fly with QR code placards that can be scanned to register health information. Similarly, drones powered with facial recognition and loudspeakers are warning residents to wear masks as well as enforcing curfews.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) plays a leading role in healthcare. With the help of data analytics and predictive models, medical professionals are able to understand more about a lot of diseases. China has developed faster computer algorithms that help predict the structure of a virus, and accurate tools to screen large populations. Kenya could install AI-powered infrared system in critical facilities such as shopping malls and bus terminals to detect a change in a person’s body temperature. For instance, Beijing’s Qinghe Railway Station is able to identify passengers who are potentially infected by examining up to 200 people in one minute without disrupting passenger flow. Similarly, autonomous computing could offer great utility in delivering essential goods like medicines and foodstuffs. Local universities could use local talents to quickly develop autonomous vehicles to clean and spray the streets.
Earlier on, the Kenyan government closed all schools and universities, and all public meetings including conferences and churches to contain the virus. Further the government has encouraged employers to consider their employees working at home. Technology can offer a perfect solution to facilitate learning through online learning platforms. Only a few local universities such as Strathmore, Nazarene and Catholic universities are offering elearning services. With free Internet offered by Google Baloons project in Kenya, school pupils have an opportunity to learn safely. Similarly, many employers have embraced telecommuting platforms such as Office 365 and Skype to support their operations including online meetings and sharing tasks.
It has been established that paper-based transactions including handling cash for bill payment are risky since they involve physical contact. To address this concern, it is evident that most government agencies are encouraging paperless transactions to avoid physical contact. For instance, filing of taxes and clearance of imported cargo is done via online systems. Further, the government is encouraging the use of mobile money transactions and this has seen free charges for low valued transactions. For instance, Kenya Power and Lighting Company is encouraging all consumers to avoid hard cash. In addition, churches are conducting their religious activities including sharing sermons on digital platforms.
Technology has disrupted business models that forms the Gig economy which avails convenient services to consumers. For instance, Kenya has seen high frequent use of hail applications such as Uber, Bolt and LittleCabs which not only offer convenient transport services but also advise whether the driver and the car have been exposed to the virus. Similarly, ecommerce has been embraced by many Kenyans as evidently seen with the increase of digital platforms such as OLX and Jumia. As a consumer, one can shop any time and purchase essentials such as hand sanitisers or order a meal which is then delivered at the customer’s premise without compromising their health safety. Such business models are critical in fighting the Pandemic given the high penetration of e-wallets and penetration of Internet of about that stand at 90% in Kenya.
Technology is crucial in providing a safe platform for sharing information in a risky environment. It is possible that medics could be exposed and contract the virus hence shrinking the workforce in health facilities. Technology would give an opportunity to such personnel to continue offering their medical services. Technology can facilitate telemedicine services as noted with the new e-health platform that was recently rolled by the Kenyatta National Hospital to safely screen and treat patients from remote places in the country. In deed, digital channels would be used by patients to share their recovery and treatment journey with other patients, their loved ones which is a remedy for quick recovery as well as get online counselling services. Similarly, technology has facilitated the Ministry of Health to continuously update the public with correct information regarding the Pandemic in this era of fake news. Fake news is a national threat and could deter the fight against the virus. Millions of Kenyans are able to follow the updates issued by the Ministry on digital channels and Short Message Services (SMSs) more conveniently.
While families continue to stay at home and thousands of individuals on self quarantine during this period, instances of boredom, loneliness and desperation are likely to threaten the fight against the virus. Technology has a special role in filling in the gap by offering a wide choice of entertainment and online games. It will be easy to contain young people in a restricted place when they can watch movies as well as play online games. Gaming is one of the fastest growing sectors in the country and would lead to revenue and employment growth during this tough economic time. In addition, technology offers personal health programmes and could help creating virtual gyms that will ultimately promote personal health.
While there has been a lot of investment in the tracking and prevention, some effort should go towards finding a cure. Technology offers an open collaborative platform for researchers to finding cure. Within the first few weeks of the virus, China had sequenced the genome of Corona virus. By posting that sequencing online, it triggered a ripple effect in research labs across the world, with a surge in orders for synthetic samples of the virus to build copies of it from scratch. This allowed new treatments to be tried – even experiments that failed offered vital clues in guiding researchers on where they should focus. Ali Baba, an ecommerce site, has offered free cloud based tools and space to encourage researchers and scientists for collaboration in finding cure. KEMRI and other medical research organizations can reap from technology in research geared towards finding cure for COVID 19.
Finally, war against the Pandemic cannot be won if data is not well managed. In fact, data is the new oil and very critical resource for managing disasters. Technology will help to collect, store and manage critical data of patients and medical resources. A stable electronic record management is essential to track patients, tests, and other information that is shared between researchers. Any kind of hiccup in that process, or loss of data could be disastrous, and cause life threatening setbacks. For instance, simple data collected by security guards as they screen people at the entrance of buildings could be remoted shared and could provide clues to emerging clusters of case. Similarly, data on medical facilities is critical and could be mapped to advise the patients on the nearest facilities. Technology will offer innovative solutions to perform predictive analysis regarding the patterns of the disease and this will ultimately inform on prioritizing on the emergency response measures as well as treatment options. Further, these solutions will inform the effectiveness of measures such as curfew and lockdown adopted to contain the Pandemic. The solutions could assist to assess the economic losses and inform the recovery options and paths that Kenya would take to reopen the economy.
Author: Dr Humphrey Njogu, Technology Policy Analyst and Head of IESD Department
Image: Courtesy of USAID