Israelis on unpaid leave launch app to lead coronavirus fight in US

A woman wears a face mask on the subway as the coronavirus outbreak continued in Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S., March 13, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/ANDREW KELLY)
A woman wears a face mask on the subway as the coronavirus outbreak continued in Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S., March 13, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/ANDREW KELLY)
Like many others, Shemuel Levinger, 27, keeps in touch with his life-long friends via a WhatsApp group. A graduate in biology at Tel Aviv University, Levinger is going to start attending medical school next fall and is currently spending a year in the United States, where his wife is from.
When the coronavirus crisis began to intensify, the disease became more and more a topic of discussion in the group. A few weeks later, the friends, supported by the American telecommunication company IDT, are now preparing to launch a new app - COVUNITY - tracking coronavirus cases and supplying crucial data to users and authorities to help them fight the outbreak. A pilot of the app targeting the greater New York area is set to be released by the end of the week, Levinger told The Jerusalem Post.
“For the past month, we have been thinking of what we could do to contribute in the fight against the disease,” he explained. “I think that in Israel it is normal for people to feel the need to do something in the light of a crisis. People care.”
Most of the five friends, some of whom served in the prestigious army intelligence unit 8200, have been put on unpaid leave as the Israeli economy has been struck by an unprecedented crisis, with over 760,000 applying for unemployment in March.
Other than Levinger, who currently sits in IDT’s offices in New Jersey, the rest of the group is all based in different cities in Israel and most of them are working on the project full time. 
“Our basic idea was to create a tool that would allow to regain some control on what is going on out there, since the virus is spreading so fast and unchecked,” he pointed out. “Therefore, we thought that if we could identify those who are sick and let the people who have been in touch with them know, it would be a great step in the process of stopping the outbreak. For this purpose, we thought of creating a sort of social platform app.”
“In Israel, the government recently decided to use anti-terrorism systems to track its citizens for the purpose of containing the disease, but in addition to the problem of the lack of consent, this method cannot be employed in other countries,” Levinger further said. “We want to reach the same goal but with people’s cooperation.”
Users are therefore going to be invited to download the app and when they do, they will be asked to complete a short, anonymous questionnaire about their health and to keep it updated with how their feeling, among others by regularly monitoring their temperature.
The entrepreneur highlighted that sharing information with COVUNITY will be completely voluntarily, but that their assumption is that users will be willing to do so in order to do their part to solve the crisis. He added that representatives of local authorities and health systems could also help persuade the citizens to cooperate.
The app will be also an immediate tool to inform people who have been in contact with someone infected, which right now does not exist in the US and most of the world.
“I want to hope that everyone would want to donate a little of their time and effort to fight the virus. With people’s help, so much can be achieved,” Levinger told the Post, also noting that with people spending their days at home, it might also be easier for them to find the time to update the app.
One of the goals of the developers is to map the areas where the outbreak is more severe and that should therefore be avoided and those which are safe and can therefore be crossed or visited.
With the support of IDT, the group is in conversation with several institutions in the greater New York area, including hospitals and colleges. A first pilot for New Jersey and New York is set to be released by the end of the week.
“We are working hard, day and night, to start as soon as possible, we don’t have the luxury to wait and learn,” Levinger concluded. “We have no idea on how we are going to make money out of this app, but this is not the point, we want to do everything in our power to help out in this critical time.”