Woman checks phone during coronavirus pandemic, Bangkok

WHO Covid-19 information to be shared with billions via SMS

Image credit: REUTERS/Jorge Silva

The World Health Organization and International Telecommunication Union will work with telecommunications companies around the world to send texts containing information about Covid-19. They hope that this will help reach billions of people without internet access.

National and international bodies are engaged in a vast effort to ensure that everybody has access to reliable health information about the coronavirus pandemic, such as guidance about enhanced hygiene and social distancing measures. The need for authoritative information has been heightened amid the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation about the virus on social media platforms.

The WHO and ITU, supported by the United Nations agency Unicef, will work with telecommunications companies around the world to send texts to people containing “vital health messaging” about Covid-19. They hope that this will allow for billions of people without internet access to remain informed about the pandemic.

Approximately 3.6 billion of the world's population do not have internet access, with most living in low-income countries where, on average, just two out of ten people are connected. Last week, the Web Foundation warned that public health efforts to minimise viral transmission rates – such as the rollout of contact tracing apps that are considered vital for easing lockdown measures – could be compromised in regions of the world where most people do not have internet access.

The WHO-ITU collaboration will begin in the Asia-Pacific region before being rolled out globally, with the aim of providing everyone with health information no matter their level of connectivity.

They are calling for telecommunications companies around the world to join the initiative in order to “unleash the power of communications technology to save lives from Covid-19”. Coronavirus is the first pandemic in human history in which technology and social media are being used on a global scale to keep people safe and productive while separated physically, the ITU said in a statement.

The initiative builds on pre-Covid-19 efforts to disseminate trusted health messages through the WHO-ITU BeHe@lthy BeMobile project, which worked to introduce mobile health services into national health systems.

In March, the UK Government took the unprecedented decision to order the four national mobile network operators to send an SMS message to all their customers telling them to remain at home and linking to the government’s central coronavirus information page. The UK does not have an emergency alert system like the US Wireless Emergency Alert network, meaning that the Government could not send the texts without the cooperation of private network operators.

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