COVID-19 shows the digital state now a public health imperative


Sandile Hlophe | Partner and Africa Region Government & Public Sector Leader | EY Africa | mail me

The idea of a digital state where different areas of government digitise data and collaborate to provide services for its citizens has been a long stated ambition for the South African government, as part of its push to embrace the 4th industrial revolution – but now it’s more important than ever.

Since the outbreak of coronavirus, it’s a must-do public health imperative that is likely to save many lives.

In fighting coronavirus, governments around the world are sharing best practices to effectively respond to the pandemic.

Using cellphones to manage health

One of the most important ways of combating the outbreak is to track and trace those that are or may become infected. This is a priority initiative by governments in developing and advanced economics.

Since South Africa has long had Regulation of Interception of Communications Act (RICA) requirements to register SIM cards, health authorities can better understand the movement of the virus – without having to develop a new system from the ground up.

Balancing the utility of using cellphones to manage health and the need to protect privacy is however important.

Cell phones are so widely adopted in South Africa, that they are the most vital tool in enabling the digital economy, allowing us to bypass many fixed infrastructure challenges.

This public health digital use case should be leveraged by other areas in government to foster wider and more effective service delivery.

Cell phones should be leveraged further and not just for tracking, but for two way citizen engagement so that citizens can interact with public health services to not only receive health advice, but also pre-screen and submit health concern questions.

This model can be used for many other interactions with the government – such as receiving quick financial support – and will greatly reduce the need for long queues and endless forms.

EY in India had developed an app that is proving a boon in managing the spread of the coronavirus. It allows people to do a quick health check on themselves, get medical advice directly from government while real time infection tracking means government can inform its citizens of high risk infection areas.

It’s an excellent example of how the government can have two way communication to help its citizens, many of whom live in similar disadvantaged environments to South Africans.

The need for digital services

It is important to ensure public workers are well equipped to provide digital services. The question is how do we get workers to offer these services to its citizens.

Workers must be equipped with laptops, WIFI and the software to enable them to serve the public on its terms. They can take a great step forward by modelling their working methods on many private sector businesses who are already doing this.

The government is urged to formulate a national digital strategy detailing how it plans to deliver efficient and accessible public services while optimising the citizen experience. The ultimate goal is not merely government transformation, but a wider societal transformation that produces better outcomes for all.

Individual government departments, agencies and local governments must drive digital transformation, both within their own organisations and by collaborating with other agencies. And businesses, entrepreneurs, universities, nonprofits and citizens themselves must be willing to pool their knowledge and resources.

Governments should ideally engage and incentivise private businesses to help deliver the necessary digital infrastructure, train a digitally literate workforce, and enable secure access to digital services.



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