Contact tracing: Here’s how government plans to find COVID-19 patients

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Contact tracing: Here’s how government plans to find COVID-19 patients

Contact tracing for COVID-19 patients

The topic of contact tracing has, since Thursday 2 April, been the talk of the town. Why, you ask? Well, according to Communications, Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, some South Africans fear that it may be a way of spying in order to find COVID-19 positive patients.

“This is not spying on anyone. This is our way of minimising the spread of the virus. We don’t take anyone’s phone numbers. It is for those who have tested positive. We do respect that everyone has a right to privacy.”

Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams

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Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) Minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma released a gazette on Thursday with amendments to the lockdown regulations. In the gazette, were ways in which the government plans to trace those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and have become “untraceable.”

Here’s what is needed for successful tracing of positive COVID-19 patients

According to the gazette, there is a COVID-19 Tracing Database. The Health Department shall develop and maintain this national database to enable the tracing of people who are known or reasonably suspected of having come into contact with the virus.

The COVID-19 Tracing Database should include all information considered necessary for the contact tracing process to be effective which includes:

  • The first name and surname;
  • Identity or passport numbers;
  • Residential address and other address where such person could be located; and
  • Cellphone numbers of all persons who have been tested for COVID- 19;

“The information contained in the COVID-19 Tracing Database and any information obtained through this regulation is confidential,” it stated.

“No person may disclose any information contained in the COVID-19 Tracing Database or any information obtained through this regulation unless authorised to do so and unless the disclosure is necessary for the purpose of addressing, preventing or combatting the spread of COVID-19,” it added.

Where any person is to be tested for COVID-19, the health official taking the sample for testing must obtain as much of the following information as is available:

  • The first name and surname;
  • Identity or passport number;
  • Residential address; and
  • Cellphone numbers of the person tested; and
  • A copy or photograph of the passport, driver’s licence, identity card or identity book of the person tested and promptly submit this information to the director-general of health for inclusion in the COVID-19 Tracing Database.
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This basically serves to ensure that anyone whose test result comes back positive for COVID-19, can be traced instead of disappearing into thin air. This person can infect others without knowing their status.

Government may source your details for contact tracing 

As outlined in the amended regulations, the director-general of health may, in writing and without prior notice to the person concerned, direct an electronic communications service provider licensed under the Electronic Communications Act, 2005 (Act No. 36 of 2005).

In other words, government has the right to access your details, such as your cellphone number and location, if you happen to test positive for COVID-19 — without your consent. Now, some may feel this is a complete invasion of privacy and others may feel like anything is necessary at this point — especially in the face of a global pandemic but one cannot expect everyone to agree on this either.

“The electronic communications service provider must promptly comply with the directive concerned,” it said.

Here’s a very formal snippet of the gazette:

“[Information] may only be obtained in relation to the location or movements of persons during the period 5 March 2020 to the date on which the national state of disaster has lapsed or has been terminated. [It] may only be obtained, used or disclosed by authorised persons and may only be obtained, used and disclosed when necessary for the purposes of addressing, preventing or combatting the spread of COVID-19 through the contact tracing process.”

Ndabeni-Abrahams said: “ECNS licences can give us access to their [COVID-19 positive patients] geo location”

What is an ECNS licence you ask?

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It’s the electronic communications service provider as mentioned above. According to, an “ECNS licence allows a company to deploy and operate a physical network. An ECNS licence is mostly for providers only, as it enables its holders to provide electronic communications services to customers over its own or via another company’s network.”

“We are not intercepting calls, even those who have tested positive,” Ndabeni-Abrahams added.

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