'The app will give you stress,' says user. But Covid-19 alert app's effectiveness depends on you, say experts

25 January 2021 - 08:00 By nomahlubi sonjica
Some people who are using the Covid-19 alert app complain that it is not working effectively. Experts explain how it can be used.
Some people who are using the Covid-19 alert app complain that it is not working effectively. Experts explain how it can be used.
Image: 123RF/KANTVER

Some users of the Covid-19 alert tracing application, that uses Bluetooth to notify a person if they have been exposed to the disease, have complained that it is not working effectively.

The app was launched in July last year.

It is used for digital contact tracing using Bluetooth technology. It allows mobile phone users to update their Covid-19 statuses and alert each other anonymously if they encounter a positive case.

Phunyuka Ngwenya, who downloaded the app soon after it was launched, said he did not find it useful.

“The app alerted me that I’ve been in contact with someone who tested positive.

“Funny enough I hadn’t been in contact with anyone outside my family and all of us had not tested positive, nor was any of us in contact with an outsider on that day,” said Ngwenya.

“When I thought things couldn’t get weirder I did the symptom check as recommended by the app. I didn’t have any of the symptoms yet I got a response to self–isolate. I was like, ‘I’m not self –isolating. If you want me to isolate you’ll first tell me who the alleged contact is,’” he said.

Ngwenya said he has since deleted the app.

Bonga Mngaza, another user, said he did not understand why the app was created if it did not add value to the person using it.

“To me there doesn’t seem to be any logic behind it. It’s like its creators do not understand user experience.

“It requires one to update the app when they’ve had Covid-19 and have their Bluetooth switched on at all times so that it can connect with others who have the app and basically update them that they were close or in contact with someone who has or had the virus. I mean people don’t really have time for that, plus Bluetooth uses up energy and people want to preserve their batteries as much as they can.”

He has also deleted the app.

“The app will give you stress. I receive a message on a Thursday alerting me that I was exposed to Covid-19 the previous Saturday. I could not remember where I was at that time and who I was in contact with,” said Phumeza Mlaza.

“That is an inconvenience because I could not understand how the app would only tell me days later that I was exposed to Covid-19.”

Mlaza decided to test for her peace of mind. Her results came back negative.

“The problem with the delayed alert is that it is difficult to know who one had been in contact with.”

Gaurang Tanna, the head of policy co-ordination and integrated planning at the health department, who led implementation of the Covid alert, and Maria Carpenter, head of digital channels at Discovery, explained how the app works.

“The app is not supposed to pick up that a person has tested positive. It’s important to understand how the app works.

“The app was not meant to detect positive cases. The app was meant to receive a positive diagnosis from the person who tested positive,” Tanna said.

“The app will not tell me that I tested positive. I must tell the app that I am positive so that the app can inform all the other app users who may have come in close contact with my phone,” he explained.

He said the people who were complaining probably did not understand how the app works.

“If a person receives a notification that they were exposed to Covid-19 a week after they had been in contact with other people, it could have been in the last 14 days that the person was exposed,” Carpenter said.

“In order to preserve privacy and anonymity, the app really knows nothing about people who are engaging through Covid Alert SA.”

Carpenter said they could not force people to report their positive diagnosis.

“We rely on goodwill. We rely on people getting a diagnosis and immediately alerting their network through Covid Alert SA,” she said.

She was adamant that the app had never been wrong.

“The app has no way of creating a fake contact. It is system driven.”

Explaining how a person gets a notification that they have been exposed to Covid-19 when they have not been in contact with other people, Carpenter said: “Perhaps they were at home but somebody came and dropped off [something] — a delivery guy. It could have been somebody working on their property. It could have been anybody that was in close enough proximity for their Bluetooth to be working from their device to another device.”

She said they had not received complaints of people getting notifications about being exposed to Covid-19 when they had not been out during the period the app said they were exposed.

“The only possible explanation is that they stay next to somebody who tested positive. We’ve yet to have a case where they [person] didn’t leave home and nobody came to their premises. It can be that you don’t leave home but somebody was in your property.”