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Tunisia launches contact-tracing app to combat coronavirus

An awareness campaign will encourage people to install the application, but 'if download rates remain low, we may change our strategy', says health ministry
People wearing protective face masks walk in the Habib Bourguiba avenue in Tunis on 12 May after the easing of some lockdown measures (AFP/File photo)

Tunisia has launched a contact-tracing mobile phone app that identifies and alerts users if they have been in close contact with someone who later reports positive for the novel coronavirus.

The E7mi application, available on Android and awaiting validation for Apple's iOS, was developed by a Tunisian start-up specialised in digital marketing tools for foreign companies, the health ministry told AFP on Tuesday.

If a user tests positive for Covid-19, Tunisia's Observatory of Emerging Diseases (ONME) contacts other users whose cell phones have been detected close to the infected user's device to notify them of the risk.

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"We started in March when we heard about the TraceTogether app in Singapore, but we wanted to do something suitable for Tunisia," said Akil Agati, head of the Wizz Labs start-up behind the app.

Users "will not report themselves infected, to avoid false alarms, and users who have been notified of being in contact with a sick person will also receive a phone call from the ONME so there can be follow-up," he said, as quoted by AFP.

"We have been faster than many other countries" in launching such an app, he added.

Personal data will be archived for 14 days under the control of the National Personal Data Protection Authority and will only be used by ONME for contacting people about coronavirus, Agati said.

Tunisia began easing restrictions, such as shortening its nightly curfew, last week, after recording three consecutive days without any new coronavirus cases.

To date, Tunisia has confirmed a total of 1,455 cases and 57 coronavirus-related dealths, according to the World Health Organisation. 

Emerging technologies

E7mi - Arabic for "protect" - is not based on contact-tracing technology developed by Apple or Google, the health ministry noted. 

The contact-tracing strategy does require users to download the app to participate. An awareness campaign will encourage people to install the application, but "if download rates remain low, we may change our strategy," health ministry official Bassem Kchaou told AFP. 

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This could include making downloading the application compulsory for people to enter large public spaces.

Tunisia's health ministry approved E7mi after three weeks of testing.

France is launching a similar app called StopCovid, which the government plans to launch on 2 June. 

Tunisia has been quick to utilise emerging technologies to combat the coronavirus pandemic. 

In late April, a Tunisian NGO set up a food bank that dispenses aid by text message to hundreds of needy families rendered more vulnerable amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In March, the government began deploying robots to enforce the country's lockdown and help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.