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The Impact of COVID-19 on African Tech Ecosystem

Izunna Okpala

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The Coronavirus (COVID-19) resulted in mass production shutdowns and supply chain disruptions due to port closures in China, creating global ripple effects in a unprecedented “twin supply-demand shock” across all the economic sectors.

More recently, it is stated that the number of cases in China is slowing down, raising hopes that it will eventually hit a peak and be regulated. Nevertheless, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reported in early March that “annual global GDP growth is expected to decline to 2.4 per cent in 2020 as a whole, from an already sluggish 2.9 per cent in 2019, with growth likely even negative in the first quarter of 2020,” with financial markets plummeting in the days that follow.

There is a high degree of uncertainty about the spread of COVID-19 and its effects on Africa is expected to be significant, given the exposure of the continent to China. Cases in Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Togo and Tunisia have been registered as yet. When there is a major COVID-19 outbreak in Africa it could already overwhelm the region’s poor health-care systems.

Coronavirus outbreak would have a downside risk for short-term growth for sub-Saharan African economies, according to ratings agency Fitch, particularly in Ghana, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, South Africa, Gabon, and Nigeria – all countries that export large amounts of commodities to China.

Last year, Africa’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications sector was expected to draw high-value investments, with many telecommunications firms looking to develop infrastructure as well as the booming e-commerce market showing potential for regional M&A. The ambiguity surrounding COVID-19, however, means that anticipated investment could be delayed as tech investors anticipate volatility and recover from the short-term impacts.

Many major technology multinationals have said that the effects of lower demand for their goods in China and the effect of breaks in the supply chain of materials required to produce their goods have negatively impacted their companies. Some have been forced to shut down shops, warehouses, production facilities and offices and let workers work from home. Labor-intensive industries are the most affected by the virus and this has impacted planned ventures, production and releases of goods in this market. It is likely to have a ripple effect in Africa and also contribute to project delays.

It is expected that if people stop going to the cinemas for fear of picking up the virus, leave the way open for mainstream broadcasters and live streaming services to enjoy staying at home film and television watchers, the global theater industry will suffer. It would be important to see what improvements film studios are making to overcome this challenge. One alternative could be using on-demand transactional video platforms for new releases. Whatever methods are introduced, the effect is likely to disrupt the conventional dependence on theaters as the first release window and, eventually, the way the film distribution industry does business could be changed forever as a result.

Wuhan in China is the world’s largest manufacturer of optical fibers and cables, accounting for a quarter of the global market. A break in the supply chain for these goods could impact the African telecommunications industry and Africa’s search to introduce fourth industrial revolution technology infrastructure. Fiber optic cable is a critical component of high-speed broadband, which is important for and implementation of 4IR technology.

When more and more customers ignore public spaces, Nigeria is also expected to see an spike in online shopping. Nigeria banks are also likely to begin testing sites for disaster recovery to ensure continued trading and business continuity where operations are affected by COVID-19 office evacuations.

Apps & Services

Coronavirus: The Covid Tracker software from Ireland is out

Izunna Okpala

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Ireland’s just-released contact-tracing app this morning, where it joined Germany’s Corona Warn-App, which was released three weeks ago.

Gibraltar recently released its Beat Covid Gibraltar app, based on the Irish code.

The Republic’s Covid Tracker software is also the foundation of an app. Northern Ireland is promising to release within weeks. And now there’s a hint Wales could go the same way.

The focus henceforth would be on building a “decentralised” app with the toolkit offered by Apple and Google, which is also being used by Germany and Ireland among a growing list of others.

On Monday, Baroness Harding gave evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee alongside Simon Thompson, the Ocado executive she drafted in to take responsibility for the app.

Mr Thompson started by saying how urgent it was to get the job done. He went on to stress that collaboration with other countries and with Google and Apple meant that “we have growing confidence that we will have a product that will be good, so that the citizens can trust it in terms of its basic functionality”.

Bluetooth doubts

Now it is true that there is very little evidence that Bluetooth-based apps have so far been successful in tracking down people who came close to someone diagnosed with the virus.

People who point to the success of countries like South Korea ignore the fact that its efforts have been based not on Bluetooth but on the use of mass surveillance data, which would almost certainly prove unacceptable here.

Scientists at Trinity College in Dublin who advised the Irish app development team have produced a number of studies showing Bluetooth can be a very unreliable way to log contacts.

After tests on a bus they warned “the signal strength can be higher between phones that are far apart than phones close together, making reliable proximity detection based on signal strength hard or perhaps even impossible”.

‘Good enough’

Germany has celebrated the fact that in three weeks its app has been downloaded by 15 million people out of a population of 83 million. But there is little or no information about whether it is performing well in its core mission of contact tracing.

Then again, countries like Germany, Ireland and Switzerland have taken the view that an app does not have to be technically perfect, and that if there is any chance of it making even a small contribution to the battle against the virus, it’s worth a go.

Countries like Germany might be tempted to point out that they have had that “cake” in the form of an effective manual tracing programme all along. Incidentally, if public trust is vital to the app’s rollout, the people of the Isle of Wight may have something to say about that.

Following the trial of the original, scrapped NHSX app on the island, some residents have been asking what will happen to their data. We’ve asked too – and have yet to receive an answer.

While the Covid Tracker app has been launched by the Health Service Executive (HSE) in the Republic of Ireland, people living across the border in Northern Ireland are able to download it and use it.

Its terms and conditions state that it is intended to be used by anyone living in or visiting the island of Ireland.

They also state that its availability for people living or visiting in Northern Ireland “is intended to help us to inform people living in border areas and to trace cases in those areas”.

Anyone using the app in NI is able to activate the contact tracing facility and can also self-report symptoms using the “Covid Check-In section”.

However, in the section which asks users to enter personal details, including gender and age-range, those living in Northern Ireland can’t add their county of residence. Only counties in the Republic of Ireland are listed – not the six in NI.

It isn’t yet clear what impact this has on the functionality of the app for NI users.

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Apps & Services

The Adoption rate of the Apple-Google COVID-19 tracker feature in Nigeria

Izunna Okpala

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The COVID-19 exposure tracker has recently been rolled out by Google and Apple on every Android and iOS device globally. According to the notice released in May, this was done in an effort to fight the spread of the virus through contact tracing — a technique used to stay aware of exposure to an infected person.

When enabled, the feature allows your Smartphone to receive notification of likely COVID-19 exposure.

However, there is a disclaimer that the software is an API that can only be enabled when the device has installed a third party tracking app.

According to the statement, the feature will remain dormant until it is activated by a COVID-19 contact tracing app, which can be deactivated at any time.

COVID-19 Exposure Notification feature cannot be activated without an installed contact tracing app

Google and Apple therefore say that the devices won’t be theirs thus saying that the identity of the user won’t be shared with other users.

To ensure this, Google announced that “Access to technology will only be provided to public-health users. Their applications must meet strict Privacy, Protection and Data Use requirements.”

Still, app creators should be committed to minimise the vulnerabilities of their products.

On Android phones, the feature can be found in ‘Google‘ under ‘Settings‘ where ‘COVID-19 exposure notification‘ is displayed. For Apple devices, ‘COVID-19 exposure logging‘ is found under ‘Health‘ in ‘Privacy settings‘.

Apple-Google COVID-19 Exposure Notification feature

By design, this technology is meant to support the efforts of governments and private players that are building contact tracing apps. When an app is used to opt in, it generates randomly changing IDs based on location. Through Bluetooth, it periodically checks other IDs to confirm if any is associated with the infection. And if it finds any, it sends a notification.

For this to work, a person who is affected or has been exposed to the infection needs to share their IDs with the app, which will immediately alert all that have come in contact with them.

While countries like India make contact tracing apps compulsory for residents, only a few startups have made an attempt at this technology in Nigeria; this explains why adoption is low.

In fact, on the Google Playstore, there’s currently no authorised contact tracing app available in the country currently. Conversely, on the Apple app store, it shows two apps, one of which has already been disabled.

Despite some countries already putting the pandemic behind them, infection cases are unfortunately still increasing across Nigeria. Currently, the figure stands at 25,694, with Lagos state  — 10,510 confirmed cases — still the epicentre.

As economic activities resume fully in states that were previously on mandatory lockdown, this appears to be the time for the adoption of massive contact tracing tools to reduce citizens’ chances of infection.

Recall that before now the use of smartphone tracking and surveillance for COVID-19 tracing have been adopted across the world in China, Hong Kong, Israel, and even in Rwanda.

But there are concerns that this feature has privacy risks, disproving Google and Apple’s promise. Considering past events, this scepticism is not misplaced.

Google, like other tech giants, has at some point been accused of turning user data into narrowly targeted ads without consent. This is often possible because users are usually unaware of the data they are agreeing to share and the company’s plan for the information.

While these privacy concerns remain, we cannot undermine the possible positive impact of the tools this Apple-Google feature will effectively support. Perhaps, it is a case of choosing the lesser evil.

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General News

COVID-19: An update on the success of Coronavirus treatment

Izunna Okpala

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There is hope in the fight against Covid-19. New evidence now exist in the United States of America supporting this procedure. Physicians in the Kansas City area, including Joe Brewer, Dan Hinthorn and Dr. Jeff Colyer, continue to see a lot of patients and some have shown progress. Hydroxychloroquine has been applied to treatment options by major medical facilities including the University of Washington and Mass General.

In addition, before this, according to a study conducted by French researchers on 80 cases who recovered from the virus within six days of treatment, a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin has been found effective in treating patients with the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Hydroxychloroquine is an anti-malarial and anti-inflammatory medication used to treat autoimmune conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, although it has been tested against symptoms of the novel coronavirus with some results.

Bahrain is one of the first countries to study hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 medication, having first used the drug on 26 February, two days after the first case of coronavirus was reported.

Countries around the world are increasing access to hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, similar compounds that are synthetic versions of quinine, which derive from cinchona trees and have been used to treat malaria for decades.

Considering the urgent therapeutic need to control this disease with efficient and safe medicines, and considering the negligible cost of both hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, we believe that this therapeutic approach should be tested urgently by medical practitioners both to prevent the spread of the disease and to treat patients until serious irreversible respiratory complications.

Even now, medical experts are still questioning the use of chloroquine as a drug. Usage of chloroquine for symptomatic treatment of coronavirus has not been licensed by the World Health Organisation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently researching a way to make the drug available for emergency use in the United States, but in a way that gives the government data about whether it is safe and effective.

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