Maldives launches coronavirus contact-tracing app

Maldives launched a digital contact-tracing app Wednesday to help health professionals identify individuals who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

The voluntary TraceEkee app, now available on Android and pending approval on Apple App Store, has been jointly built by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) and a group of local developers using code from Singapore’s TraceTogether app.

“TraceEkee supports the efforts to mitigate community spread of Covid-19 in the Maldives through community-driven detailed contact-tracing,” the HPA said.

How it works

TraceEkee uses Bluetooth to make a series of ‘digital handshakes’ in order to identify when two people with the app come close to one another.

It does this by logging an encrypted reference code for each individual also running the app that you come into close contact with, as well as the date, time and proximity of the contact.

The code is generated based on the nearby phone’s identifier, model, signal strength and time.

The data is securely encrypted and stored on the users’ phone.

No physical location data is collected by the app. The permission structure of devices requires all apps that use Bluetooth to gain location permission.

If a user is found to have had come in contact with someone that had tested positive for Covid-19, the HPA will ask your consent to upload your encounter data for contact tracing analysis.

TraceEkee will also keep you updated on new developments surrounding the coronavirus outbreak in the Maldives and guide you on ways to protect yourself.

Digital contact-tracing

Contact-tracing apps are designed to automatically identify people that are at high risk of having the virus, based on whether someone else they were recently near to has been diagnosed with it.

There are two approaches to achieve this: a centralised or a decentralised model.

In the centralised model, the matching process, which works out which users had been in close contact, happens on a computer server.

This contrasts with the decentralised approach — where the matches take place on users’ handsets.

Many governments, including Singapore and Australia, have opted for the decentralised approach. Switzerland, Estonia and Austria’s Red Cross, as well as a pan-European group called DP3T, are pursuing a similar approach.

Tech giants Apple and Google are also jointly developing an app that adopts a decentralised approach.

The UK is, however, following a centralised approach.

How has the Maldives fared?

The number of coronavirus cases in the Maldives have reached 277 after the island nation reported 27 new infections Wednesday.

HPA said 27 new cases from capital Male were detected Wednesday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the 6.8 square kilometre island-city to 265 and the national tally to 277.

The confirmed local transmission clusters in the country include 117 Maldivians, 115 Bangladeshis, 17 Indians, three Pakistanis and two Sri Lankans.

Authorities managed to mitigate the spread of the virus and the Covid-19 respiratory disease it causes amongst the Maldives’ citizens and residents early on by closing the Indian Ocean tourist paradise’s borders, earning praise from the World Health Organisation.

But the disease is now spreading rapidly, especially within the large migrant worker community in capital Male. Authorities have ramped up relocating workers from the cramped up dormitories in one of the world’s most densely populated cities to temporary accommodation units.

An estimated 63,000 foreign nationals work in the Maldives illegally out of a migrant worker population close to 145,000.

Foreign workers in the Maldives, predominantly Bangladeshi and Indian men, are subjected to practices indicative of forced labour, including fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, and debt bondage.

As most migrant workers live in extremely poor conditions, a widespread outbreak amongst them could lead to large virus clusters, overwhelming the country’s already under staffed and strained healthcare system and making it harder for authorities to contain the spread of the virus.

On March 8, Maldives reported its first cases of the novel coronavirus, as two hotel employees tested positive for Covid-19 at a luxury resort in the archipelago.

Eighteen more cases — all foreigners working or staying resorts and liveaboard vessels except five Maldivians who had returned from abroad — were later identified.

A six-case cluster of locals, detected in capital Male on April 15, confirmed community transmission of the coronavirus. Several more clusters have since been identified, bringing the total number of confirmed case in the Maldives to 277.

No deaths have been reported and 17 have made full recoveries. Only one is hospitalised.

The Maldives announced a state of public health emergency on March 12, the first such declaration under a recent public health protection law.

The public health emergency declaration has allowed the government to introduce a series of unprecedented restrictive and social distancing measures, including stay-at-home orders in capital Male and its suburbs, a ban on inter-island transport and public gatherings across the country, and a nationwide closing of government offices, schools, colleges and universities.

Non-essential services and public places in the capital such as gyms, cinemas and parks have also been shut.

Restaurants and cafes in the capital have been asked to stop dine-in service and switch to takeaway and delivery.

A nationwide shutdown of all guesthouses, city hotels and spa facilities located on inhabited islands is also in effect.

The coronavirus outbreak has hit the Maldivian economy hard, as travel restrictions and other preventive measures affect the country’s lucrative tourism industry, which contributes the bulk of the island nation’s state revenue and foreign reserves.

Before the pandemic, the government had been bullish about tourism prospects, targeting two million, high-spending holidaymakers this year after last year’s record 1.7 million.

However, tourist arrivals saw a year-over-year decline of 22.8 per cent in the first 10 days of March. Officials say the number of tourist arrivals to the Maldives could drop by half in 2020.

All international airlines have suspended scheduled operations to the Maldives, as the island nation enforced a blanket suspension of on-arrival visa in late March in a bid to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Even before the visa suspension, the Maldives had closed its borders to arrivals from some of the worst-hit countries, including mainland China, Italy, Bangladesh, Iran, Spain, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Visitors from three regions of Germany (Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg), two regions of France (Île-de-France and Grand Est) and two regions of South Korea were also banned from entering the country.

All direct flights to and from China, Italy, South Korea and Iran were also cancelled.

Cruise ships and foreign yachts were also banned from docking at any of the country’s ports.

With arrival numbers falling and the visa suspension in effect, several resorts across the Maldives had been closed.

Tourism has been the bedrock of the Maldives’ economic success. The $5 billion-dollar economy grew by 6.7 per cent in 2018 with tourism generating 60 per cent of foreign income.

However, the government is at present projecting a possible 13 per cent economic contraction this year — an estimated $778 million hit.

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