The scale and urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented demand for timely, accurate and accessible information. Governments are grappling with how to access and use up-to-date data on COVID-19 and how to effectively communicate with citizens in an environment proliferated by myths and misinformation.
South Africa, which has been especially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic having the highest number of positive cases on the continent (1.52 million as of 9th March 2021) is no exception with the need for good information The scale of the pandemic has put huge pressures on health services and has disrupted the ability of vulnerable populations, such as those living with TB and HIV/AIDs, to safely access care. It has also aggravated and spread already existing socio-economic hardships including poverty, hunger, and urban joblessness. A recent second wave and new, more easily transmittable COVID-19 strain have contributed to their problem.
Against this backdrop, the South African government has been commended for its data and science led response to the pandemic and early on in the crisis, the government set up national and provincial contact centres to respond to concerned citizens. Despite their strong efforts, however, demands for better data continue while the contact centres have proven to be high-cost while struggling to equip workers with timely advice.
To help address these challenges, South Africa launched HealthConnect for COVID, an innovation developed by South African non-profit, Praekelt.org, in March 2020. It comprises two components, HeathAlert and HealthCheck, that both use mobile technology using two-way WhatsApp, and toll-free USSD communication platforms. Via HealthAlert citizens can request the most up to date information on COVID-19 from a trusted and reliable source, and via HealthCheck they can undertake a risk assessment based on their symptoms, and receive tailored advice depending on their circumstance. For more information, you can watch these short demo videos for HealthAltert and HealthCheck. While interacting with these tools, users also produce large volumes of data, which can be utilised to better understand what messages are most effective, and as inputs to government decision making as it navigates the pandemic.
GIF announced a US$500,000 grant for HealthConnect to enable Praekelt.org to explore and seek to maximise the potential of this data for COVID response in partnership with IDinsight, a research organisation with expertise in monitoring and evaluation, data science and analytics. The innovators will use GIF’s funding to generate a better understanding on how HealthConnect influences users’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviours, how it can be improved in this regard, and develop tools to monitor the effects of changes to the tool on users. They will also seek to provide timely, actionable insights from data analysis of self-reported HealthConnect data alongside other data sources, such as vulnerability indices or COVID testing data. Heat maps and other visualisations will be provided to health authorities, and the research team will be better equipped to respond to specific requests from South Africa’s National Department of Health. Ultimately, we hope that an improved, data-driven pandemic response will create better outcomes for people through better targeting of healthcare measures such as contact tracing, reducing COVID transmission through better knowledge of preventative practices, and ease pressure on health care facilities.
Beyond the immediate impacts, there is immense potential to generate new learning through this grant. HealthConnect has reached more 20 million people in partnership with the WHO and health ministries across the world, with 8 million in South Africa alone. GIF believes that learning from this innovation will have wider implications for the potential of mass media communication tools and self-reported health information at scale for decision-making, and further the understanding of government-citizen interface initiatives.
If you are looking for up to date COVID information or are interested in finding out more and first-hand about this innovation, you can interact with the WHO HealthAlert in English by sending “hi” to +41 79 893 18 92 on WhatsApp. The South African version can be accessed via +27600123456.