COVID-19: Sex Workers Using Online Listing for Contact Tracing

The world’s oldest trade coupled with the latest digital technologies is helping to provide a solution to COVID-19 contact tracing. Online escort directory Exotic Kenya stumbled upon a quirky yet beneficial use of the organization’s web platform. Escorts have been signing up to get clients on the platform, but the opportunity came for them to do contact tracing after COVID struck. Majority who did not know or embrace online directories had to move online because of lockdowns to increase the number of bookings, and some had to innovate and start offering video chats as a service during lockdown hours.

Calls, SMS, websites chats, and WhatsApp conversations are initiated from the website by clients to the escorts but the contact details aren’t recorded in the company’s database says Tom, CEO of Escort Africa. Privacy concerns prevented the company from keeping client contact records.

However, escorts kept a log of all calls, SMS, WhatsApp chats emanating from the web portal and utilizing the logs for contact tracing says Tom.

While on the streets, contact tracing presents a challenge due to no record of the clients and escorts’ physical meeting. In a sister company, Exotic Africa, an escort moving from Tanzania to Zambia tested positive for COVID-19 and got in touch with the agency to assist in contact tracing.

The Ministry of Health identified contact tracing as one of the major challenges in containing COVID infections. As of 25th June, 2020, Of the 5,384 confirmed COVID-19 cases a total of 9,520 contacts have been listed. 61% of cases recorded for contract tracing did not yield contact information (see chart below). Busia has the highest number of untraceable contacts at 87% — the mobile nature of truck drivers at the Busia border stop and escorts migrating in and out of nearby areas to meet truck drivers presents a contract tracing challenge. The engagements are wholly offline and often one time — a digital trace of the engagement would come in handy track down physical contacts.

Albeit the website Exotic Kenya affording a means of achieving contact tracing, the CEO of Exotic Africa disclosed that;

most escorts embraced the call to stay and work from home by offering online companionship (video and text services) to avoid contact and work after curfew hours

Boredom and long stays at home due to the lockdown created a demand for companionship which have been filled by the escorts. A quick survey at the prices indicate an average fee of Kshs 2,000 per hour for online companionship services offered by the escorts. As of September, 2020, around 60% of the listed escorts had offered online companionship or dance services to clients. Prior to the lockdown less than 10% had offered any form of online entertainment. The online services also broaden the client base and captured clients outside the country hence higher earnings.

The leap to embrace non-physical forms of engagement from is likely to alter tastes and perhaps reduce sexually transmitted diseases — a benefit to public health. A rise in demand for online escort companionship has been experienced on the platform. In January, the website had an average of 10,000 active monthly users, the number jumped to 20,000 users during the lockdown. Interactions (calls, SMS, web chat and WhatsApp) on the website also increased from a daily average of 3,000 before the lockdown to 5,000 per after the lockdown commenced. On average, users spend 4 minutes daily on the website — higher than Twitter and Instagram at 3.5 minutes and 2.9 minutes respectively.

All businesses have been transformed by COVID-19, the oldest trade in the world is kept alive by technology.

Data Scientist