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Commentary: African govts. should commit to transparency & respect for privacy in using technology-enabled Covid-19 surveillance

Author: The Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) (Uganda), Published on: 4 June 2020

"Covid-19 in Africa: When is Surveillance Necessary and Proportionate?"

As the world grapples to contain the novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19), the role of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to enhance disease surveillance, coordinate response mechanisms, and promote public awareness has become more significant. This role of digital technologies is particularly crucial in sub-Saharan Africa where systemic vulnerabilities such as weak health systems and high levels of illiteracy could slow the response to the pandemic...

The extent to which African countries are conducting technology-based disease surveillance is not fully known. However, according to an unconfirmed report, Kenya is monitoring the mobile phones of individuals who are under self-isolation, to arrest those who violate the restrictions imposed on their movements. Further, the Kenyan government has announced it will launch a contact tracing app for public transport to provide critical contact data that will help trace back the movements of confirmed or suspected cases. In South Africa, telecom companies have agreed to give the government location data to combat Covid-19. In Uganda, where health authorities struggled to locate several individuals who travelled on the same flights as persons who tested positive for the coronavirus, there has been a suggestion to use information from the immigration department and telecom companies to locate those individuals...

It is therefore important that African governments commit to transparently deal with the use of technology-enabled disease surveillance, with robust legal safeguards and privacy standards. Accordingly, specific data protection principles must be adhered to. For instance, data should be processed for lawful and specific purposes and there must be strict accountability. Similarly, the justifications of public good should not be misused whatsoever, especially in the post-coronavirus era.

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