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Drones Spread Word About COVID-19 in Rural South Africa  

Drones are helping to spread messages from the sky on how to prevent coronavirus infection in the far-flung, poor, rural areas of northern South Africa. The Greater Tzaneen Municipality has been pioneering the use of drones in South Africa as a tool to educate people about COVID-19 prevention in local languages and monitoring potential hotspots. So far there is only one coronavirus infection in the municipality.

COVID-19 has changed many things in South Africa.

In the Greater Tzaneen Municipality in northern Limpopo Province, the mayor’s voice, warning about the virus, comes from a drone in the sky.

With only three hospitals in the entire district, extensive coronavirus prevention efforts are needed, says Mayor Maripe Mangena via Skype.

“We are able to access all people. A drone… when it flies, when it hovers above the communities, it fascinates, it intrigues people," said Mangena. "People want to listen. People want to hear what is the message that is being said.”

A licensed drone service provider is carrying out the messaging at potential coronavirus hotspots under the direction of South African authorities.

Speaking via Zoom, Ntiyiso Aviation Services managing director Jack Shilubana says the Greater Tzaneen Municipality was the first to use this drone solution his company offered to raise COVID-19 awareness.

“They’ve got a perception that we’re talking about a whole lot of money that you spend in this exercise," he said. "And others will probably ask and say, ‘But why don’t you provide water?’ And it’s that balancing act you know, in terms of how much technology cost you, but the value that you derive from an exercise such as this one.”

Drones are well suited for this purpose in rural areas — especially in Africa — says the South African Federation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Speaking via Skype, head chairperson of the federation Sam Twala says drones provide more value for the money.

“In Africa, that’s where drones [are] going to find better use to even other areas in the world, or other countries in the world, simply because of the particular challenges we have," he said. "And when it comes to things like your cost, that’s actually where drones add much more value, because drones offer that advantage where you can tactically place your people.”

Local Tzaneen media report that spreading the message on COVID-19 prevention by drones seems to have helped keep down infections.

Newspaper and video streaming service Far North Bulletin’s editor Joe Dreyer spoke via Skype.

“I believe it helped. And I believe that without the drones broadcasting these messages to these people in the far-off areas, they wouldn’t have known,” he said.

COVID-19 has hit South Africa the hardest of any country on the continent, with nearly 5,000 confirmed infections and at least 90 deaths.

President Cyril Ramaphosa last week said a nearly five-week lockdown has curbed the spread of the virus and a phased easing of the restrictions would begin.