HAMNET Report 25th April 2020

Late last month the US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that relates to future iPhones being equipped with device-to-device (D2D) communication and efficient power management.

If an iPhone user happens to get hurt while hiking or is in a disaster like a hurricane, he may either be out of cellular range or in an area where cellular towers cease to function in order to successfully call for emergency services. With a D2D system integrated into future iPhones, a user will still be able to send out an emergency text or audio message that could be received by groups of devices/people that are out of cellular communications range so that they could call for emergency services for you. This could very well be a lifesaving feature in the future.

Device-to-device (D2D) communication may be referred to as direct communication between two mobile devices without traversing a base station or core network (e.g., a cellular network). There are some situations in which a mobile device user may be outside of coverage areas of cellular communications. For example, in an emergency situation (e.g., an injury during hiking), a user may want to be able to send out emergency signals to people who are near. As another example, in a natural disaster (e.g., a flood), it may be advantageous to be able to send out messages to a large group of mobile device users in order to coordinate evacuation or rescue efforts.

In such situations, it may be desirable for a mobile device, such as a smart phone, to communicate with other mobile devices in a D2D communication network.

In some situations, D2D communication may be preferred even if there is cellular coverage. For example, in a sports stadium or in a mall, the cellular signals may be congested. A user may want to turn off cellular communication, and instead communicate with friends using D2D communication. Therefore, there is a need for improved methods of D2D communications.

Apple’s invention covers enhanced procedures of sending emergency messages using D2D communications that may alleviate collisions and reduce overhead.

However, nowhere in the notice quoted above does it mention whether an Apple phone will be able to poll an Android phone and vice versa, or not.

Now, Professor Ian Goldin, writing in The Guardian, notes that the coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed health systems in Europe and North America. The US, France, Italy, Spain and the UK have all experienced shortages of doctors, ventilators, personal protective equipment and testing capacity. But it’s going to be even worse in poor countries where medical resources are scarce.

Ten African countries have no ventilators at all. In Uganda, there are only 55 intensive care beds for 43 million citizens. And no poor country could afford the economic safety net that is currently sustaining citizens and companies here in the UK. In fact, Covid-19 is the biggest disaster for developing nations in our lifetime. If ever there was a time for concerned citizens and political leaders in both developing and richer countries to come together, it’s now.

Many cash-strapped governments can’t adequately provide for their citizens in normal times, let alone during a global emergency

We’ve already seen that Covid-19 is no “great leveller”. Poorer people are at greater risk of catching the virus and are more likely to suffer the worst effects of an economic shock. And the poorer the country, the less capable it is of addressing people’s pressing needs, from identifying and treating cases of the virus to supporting communities and businesses deprived of income. The vast majority of people living in countries in sub-Saharan Africa are employed in the informal sector and receive no unemployment, sickness or other benefits. And more than a third of all jobs and incomes in Africa could be lost as a result of Covid-19.

The World Health Organization has recommended physical distancing to control the spread of the virus, but in places where families share single-room homes and lack running water to wash their hands, these measures are difficult, if not impossible, to adopt. Many of the world’s poor have no access to life-saving medical facilities; in the entire African continent, there are just 20,000 critical care beds, equivalent to 1.7 for every 100,000 people. Malawi has just 25 ICU beds for its 17 million citizens, while in Bangladesh there are just 1,100 ICU beds for a population of more than 160 million. And while the UK health budget is about R76000 per citizen per year, in African countries it averages R228, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In China and much of Europe, the coronavirus crisis preceded an economic crisis. But in many developing nations the economic shock has come first, as governments have locked down their economies to reduce the speed of contagion. As a result, countries in Africa and Latin America, together with Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, are expected to suffer their greatest ever economic decline. One immediate effect of the lockdown is hunger, as transport and distribution systems are severely disrupted and the food supply in many countries – already depleted after years of drought, extreme weather events and recent locust infestations – becomes scarce.

Then there is the question of how countries will cope with the coming medical emergency. In South Africa, for example, it is expected that the pandemic peak will only be reached in September, but incomes have already shrunk due to a lockdown that was announced before the UK’s and is every bit as stringent as that in Italy. South Africa has mobilised domestically, working with civic organisations and businesses to create a solidarity fund to address the food and other needs of citizens, and reached out globally. However, even for one of Africa’s richest countries, this may be inadequate to address the scale of the challenge.

Many leaders are doing all they can under the circumstances, but both domestic and international action is required to limit the damage caused by Covid-19. South African president Cyril Ramaphosa’s evidence- and equity-based approach stands in stark contrast with Jair Bolsonaro’s denialism in Brazil, or Donald Trump’s divisive actions in the US. But, while Covid-19 is a test of leadership everywhere, in countries with widespread and deep poverty where medical supplies are severely limited, even the best leaders cannot save their populations from health and economic vulnerabilities. Foreign assistance is essential!

Sobering thoughts indeed from Professor Goldin.

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.