Africa: 20 Million Use COVID-19 WhatsApp Line - Focus on Health Workers is Next

12 June 2020

Johannesburg — Months after successfully launching COVID-19 Connect in South Africa and the World Organisation's global HealthAlert on WhatsApp, Praekelt.org is planning to launch a similar service for health workers in South Africa.

The two existing WhatsApp services provide users with relevant information to help them make informed and effective decisions during the novel coronavirus pandemic, and have been accessed by more than 20 million people.

"Since health workers need different types of information and they need to be doing checks every single day in order to look after themselves, Praekelt.org is going to be working with the national department of health to launch a health workers' version of the service. There is going to be a crisis in many countries where other diseases are going to start to be really negatively affected by the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that so many people are not scared of the virus," said Praekelt.org's Managing Director, Debbie Rogers.

Praekelt was founded by Gustav Praekelt in 2007 when he noticed more and more people being reached through mobile technology, especially those who didn't have access before. "Since then we've been developing all kinds of programs using really simple mobile technology like SMS and WhatsApp messaging to improve the lives of people all over the world," said Rogers.

Read the full interview with Praekelt MD Debbie Rogers

COVID-19 Connect was built off the back of MomConnect, one of Praekelt.org's biggest programmes before they started working in the COVID-19 space. Pregnant women in South Africa who go to a public clinic for their first antenatal visit are signed up for the programme, which sends support messaging throughout the pregnancy, and up until the child is five years old. Mothers can also provide feedback on the service and ask questions of the national department of health.

After recording significant success with MomConnect in South Africa, Praekelt.org is hoping to expand the programme to Mozambique, Malawi, and the DRC over the coming months.

"We knew we had been using WhatsApp quite successfully as a platform for MomConnect and that we could fairly easily and quickly get up a service that could respond to COVID-19... So within a couple weeks, we launched the national WhatsApp line here in South Africa, which is 0600 123 456. You can send the message 'Hi' to that number and engage with that application," Rogers said.

Dial *134*550# and register for MomConnect - once registered, pregnant mothers and new mothers are able to send SMSes free of charge to the ministry to either compliment or complain about the service they received at clinics in South Africa.

The organisation's novel coronavirus information service is now one of the most popular WhatsApp services in the world, both commercial and non-profit, "just due to the sheer volume of usage they have every single day on the platform". Praekelt originally approached the WHO for help with content on launching. "They were very generous and also decided to take on the service themselves in HealthAlert."

"The WHO's line (HealthAlert) is a global line which was initially launched in English but is now available in, I think, 18 different languages. We launched that pretty quickly using the technology and tools we've used before and been developing for some time for our programmes like MomConnect. We got it up primarily as an informational service on WhatsApp where people could start to message in keywords and, based on those keywords, are able to browse the most relevant, up-to-date content," Rogers said.

Read the full interview with Praekelt MD Debbie Rogers

And what's next for Praekelt?

"I think this platform has allowed us to get health communication tools into the hands of millions of people worldwide in a way that would have taken possibly years previously, and it's very important is to make sure that we're not just addressing the pandemic but that we're setting up tools and platforms that can be used by ministries of health for all kinds of other health issues," Rogers said.

COVID-19 Connect also offers wellness content to attempt addressing various mental health issues that may come up because of the pandemic and lockdown.

"There is going to be a crisis in many countries where other diseases are going to start to be really negatively affected by the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that so many people are not scared of the virus.

"But also we need to be prepared for whatever the next health crisis is in the country; to be able to effectively, efficiently and accurately communicate to their citizens and health workers when that happens. What we're hoping is that it's not just a response to COVID-19 but starts to be seen as a health communication platform for ministries of health all over the world."

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