Africa Defense Forum
ADF is a professional military magazine published quarterly by U.S. Africa Command to provide an international forum for African security professionals. ADF covers topics such as counter terrorism strategies, security and defense operations, transnational crime, and all other issues affecting peace, stability, and good governance on the African continent.

South African Mobile Alert Puts COVID-19 Info Into Hands of Millions


A WhatsApp bot developed by a South African organization is helping millions of people around the world get the latest information about COVID-19.

When the virus broke out, already had created digital tools to help people in the developing world improve their health and well-being. One of their most successful was called MomConnect, a mobile phone service giving expectant mothers vital information about pregnancy milestones and linking them to services.

Gustav Praekelt, founder of, saw a similar need for information relating to COVID-19. The South African government had set up hotlines, but they were unable to handle the volume of calls, and misinformation was spreading quickly.

“We were worried that our users wouldn’t have access to a trusted source of information,” Praekelt said. “So people hear rumors and they hear stories, and people get panicky and worried about what they should do to keep themselves healthy, especially as all the lockdowns started happening.”

Praekelt created COVID-19 Health Alert, offering a WhatsApp-based helpline, real-time data and automated responses to common questions in numerous languages. Within the first 10 days, the bot had 3.5 million users, and Praekelt partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to create a similar bot to reach a global audience.

A primary goal is to counter false information about the pandemic.

“We’re now launching in many, many, many languages, and on that bot, you can find out information but we also publish falsehoods and myths. Because sometimes what happens is you need to actively counteract the falsehoods,” Praekelt said. “You can’t just provide the positive information; you also have to say, ‘There is information out there that is incorrect.’”

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is extremely popular in the developing world, where it largely has replaced Facebook and even email as the primary form of digital communication and networking. It has more than 2 billion users worldwide.

WhatsApp leaders say they want it to play a positive role on the African continent and beyond as a source for reliable information.

“We think the most important step WhatsApp can take during this crisis is to help connect people directly with public health officials providing crucial updates about coronavirus,” said Nmachi Jidenma, a member of the WhatsApp Partnerships and Business Development team.

Jidenma said the company moved quickly to make WHO Health Alert go live in as many countries as possible, including Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Israel, Nigeria, Singapore, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

“We have worked with the World Health Organization to set up WHO Health Alert and are partnering with national health ministries around the world,” Jidenma wrote.  “Each of these health alert lines provides education on myths and rumors circulating about coronavirus.”

Praekelt said the speed at which the bot has been adopted has been beyond expectations.

“We’ve had an unprecedented success. More than 12 million people now have accessed the WHO line in the last 10 days since we launched,” he said. “And we’ve now launched multiple other languages as well, including Arabic and Spanish and French and more languages to come. And so clearly, people are finding the information useful.”

Now it’s time to see whether it’s having an impact on users’ behavior and health.

“I think the next step will be to try and understand how people are interpreting that information and whether it’s actually helping them to change their behavior,” he added.

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