Geographic Information Systems (GIS): A lethal tool to fight the novel coronavirus


Report by Collen Murahwa

As the world is reeling and seemingly loosing pace to the coronavirus, questions remain unanswered as to whether the pandemic has now become the new normal. Even a top World Health Organisation Official, Dr Michael Ryan recently warned on the possibility that the new coronavirus may be here to stay.

Scientists across the length and breadth of the globe are running to and fro in the hope of finding a vaccine for this unwelcome guest that has crippled economies and livelihoods.

Un Secretary-General Antonio Gutterres warned that the pandemic could push millions into extreme poverty in Africa, where the virus has spread to every country. Globally, more than 4.9 million people have been confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus with more than 300 000 deaths recorded so far.

In countries with weaker public health systems, the threat is quite big. In Zimbabwe for instance most cases are as a result of returnees from coronavirus hotspots as well as cross boarder truck drivers. It then becomes crucial to enforce quarantine to curb the spread of the virus.

The ubiquitous threat to humanity is so massive that there is need to use every resource available to defeat the deadly coronavirus and there is need to use the available satellite networks for the purpose with some novelty. Satellite technology is crucial in the sense that it maintains some certain level of social distance. It is safer to use the satellite or at least drones to monitor adherence to lockdown laws as it keeps law enforcement agencies safe from exposure to affected areas. Information that can be obtained from satellite images help authorities in making decisions rather than sending people on the ground who may end up being exposed.

Technologies such as the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Remote Sensing as well as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have become increasingly useful in fighting pandemics and thus, Zimbabwe can make use of such.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are ways to organise, present and analyse spatial and geographic data. The John Hopkins University in the United States of America has a Coronavirus tracking website which gathers information from multiple data sources.

In a conversation with ETCIO, Esri President Agendra Kumar said Geographic understanding was essential in detecting, understanding and responding to any infectious diseases outbreak specifically in pandemics such as the coronavirus. GIS helps epidemiologists to map disease occurrence against multiple parameters including demographics, the environment, geographies and past occurrences to understand the origin of outbreaks, its spread pattern and its intensity to implement control, preventative and surveillance measures. Public Health agencies, policy makers and administrators need GIS to understand outbreak patterns in real time to identify a risk population and plan targeted intervention such as evaluate available facilities or increase healthcare capacities.

Authorities can seal up areas that have not been affected by the novel coronavirus as provided for in GIS maps and restrict entrants with ease as information will be provided on maps that are updated in real time using GIS softwares.

Recently the province of Alberta in Western Canada planned to use smartphones to enforce quarantine. This initiative has already been proven to be successful in many countries as monitoring the movements would ensure the virus does not get passed easily through unnecessary contact.

Canadian based Emergency Management expert Chakanaka Zinyemba said GIS was crucial in ensuring targeted interventions for vulnerable groups through mapping areas that show cross cutting themes of humanitarian action.

“GIS helps in coming up with simple visualisations of case distributions across a province or the country depending on the dataset that is available. It provides spatial distribution of those you might consider vulnerable populations so by whatever criteria for the pandemic typically working in health vulnerability areas where there are people with underlying health conditions and also economic and social vulnerability and if you have data that shows you where most of your vulnerable people are and then you can do targeted interventions for those vulnerable groups,” he said.

He added that, “Logistics during this pandemic can be strenuous especially if you are distribution food aid, medical equipment, masks, among other requirements, you can actually use GIS to help map out your routes, distribution points based on certain demographics or certain data … you need to provide particular attention on particular places. You can create maps that can help you make those targeted interventions,”

GIS Officer in the Ministry of Health and Childcare Tinashe Chingwena, said GIS technology was crucial in contact tracing and monitoring of patients.

“GIS is helping in ensuring that confirmed cases are geo-located, even those people that would have been in contact with those positive cases, we would monitor them and track them. We make use of the Ministry of Health and University of Zimbabwe dashboards.” He said.

With experts warning about a second wave of the coronavirus, it is important to use every way possible to ensure the citizens are well abreast of these technologies and utilise them in monitoring the situation to ensure no further loss of lives as a result of this murderous disease.

To date Zimbabwe has recorded 48 positive cases, 18 recoveries and four (4) deaths due to the coronavirus pandemic with Harare being the epicentre, closely followed by Bulawayo.

Collen Murahwa is a disaster management and communications studies student and he is writing in his own personal capacity as part of his academic research.

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