Covid-19 hotline and WhatsApp helpline flooded with calls, messages

18 March 2020 - 16:12 By Nomahlubi Jordaan
The Covid-19 hotline and WhatsApp-based helpline are fielding huge volumes of traffic.
The Covid-19 hotline and WhatsApp-based helpline are fielding huge volumes of traffic.
Image: REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Within days of its launch, the national health department’s WhatsApp-based helpline, Covid-19 Connect, has engaged with more than 1.5-million people.

The helpline, the department said, was launched at the weekend to deliver “accurate, up-to-date information to South African citizens at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

“In just a few days, the service has already engaged more than 1.5-million South Africans and has served more than 15-million messages,” the department said.

Covid-19 Connect was created in a week by Praekelt.Org, using Turn.io technology to deliver automated informational responses providing answers to the most frequently asked questions about Covid-19 and the coronavirus. 

“Covid-19 Connect, endorsed by the national department of health and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), is already playing an important role in supporting the department of health’s national response. The service is enabling the South African government to have direct communication with the public, empowering individuals with the right information and alleviating pressure on the national call centre,” said the department. 

Using up-to-the-minute information from the World Health Organisation (WHO), coupled with local news updates and information on prevention, symptoms, treatment, risks, travelling and testing, the app is helping to mitigate against misinformation that can distract from critical health prevention, the department said. 

“The national department of health has previously pioneered the use of WhatsApp to take its MomConnect maternal health programme to scale ... Our experience on this, and other large scale health initiatives worldwide, has enabled us to rapidly implement Covid-19 Connect,” said Debbie Rogers, managing director of Praekelt.org

“President Cyril Ramaphosa asked that we act together, act now and act decisively - the national department of health, the teams from WhatsApp and WHO. And our own teams at Praekelt.org and Turn.io have done exactly this over the past few days while developing Covid-19 Connect,” said Gustav Praekelt, founder of Praekelt.org and co-founder of Turn.io.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 public hotline has recorded high call volumes - 324,062 to date.  

“As such, we have added two additional hotline numbers to capacitate and upscale timeous response of inquiries for the public and doctors. Clinicians can now contact the new clinicians' hotline number on 0800 11 1131 for doctors only, and in addition to 0800 029 999 the public can also contact the public hotline number on 0800 111 132. Please note that all lines operate 24 hours a day,” said the NICD in a statement.

The institute said it had also recorded a high number of prank calls.

“We wish to urge the public to desist from such behaviour, as it takes away resources from those who need them,” said the NICD.


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