WHO, ITU, UNICEF look to text coronavirus information to unconnected people

Trio trying to reach 3.6 billion people that are without access to the internet.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

For those without access to the internet, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), supported by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), want to work with telcos around the world to text health information related to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the planet.

"The goal is to reach everyone with vital health messages, whatever their connectivity level," the WHO and ITU said in a statement.

"An estimated 3.6 billion people remain offline, with most people who are unconnected living in low-income countries, where an average of just two out of every ten people are online."

The sending of texts will begin across the Asia-Pacific, before being extended to the rest of the world.

The pair added that COVID-19 is the first pandemic where technology and social media can be used on a massive scale to keep people safe.

"Resilient and trustworthy telecommunication networks and services are essential, as more countries, companies and individuals turn to digital technologies to respond to and cope with the impact of COVID-19," they said.

Some countries, such as Australia, have already undertaken their own text message campaign.

Last month, the WHO launched a chatbot on WhatsApp to provide information on the pandemic. The service began only with support for English, but was later extended to support Arabic, English, French, and Spanish speakers.

To interact with it, users will need to message the WHO account on +41 79 475 22 09 and send the word "hi", "hola", "salut" or "مرحبا" to begin chatting, after which, a list of prompts is returned to the user to access official information about the virus.

Last week, US President Donald Trump froze his nation's funding for the WHO, claiming it covered up the initial spread of coronavirus. The move is likely to exacerbate conditions in the poorer nations of the world and could impact programs such as eradicating polio.

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