The United Nations is working with leading telecommunications players in Africa to fight misinformation on the coronavirus outbreak, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa Vera Songwe said Wednesday.
Mobile network operators MTN, Airtel, Orange SA, and Vodacom, in partnership with the foremost international organization, plan to build a mobile platform that delivers Covid-19 information to about half of the continent’s population – around 600 million people – free of charge.
The Africa Communications International Platform went live on Tuesday in some countries, with initial posts on tips about Covid-19 hot zones, daily updates from government and healthcare groups, as well as symptom checker features, reports show. It will be available in about 23 African countries with plans to roll out in Latin America, Songwe said.
The goal is to tackle the incessant problem of Covid-19 misinformation. Since the first case of the novel coronavirus was first confirmed in the region late February, African governments have been faced with the twin task of curbing further spread of the deadly disease and tackling misinformation surrounding the pandemic which is spread mostly through social media platforms.
The misleading information overtime range from those about cures and remedies for the coronavirus disease making rounds on the dominant local chat platform WhatsApp to suggestions of weather and demographic factors hindering the spread of Covid-19 in Africa on blogs despite leading health experts and scientists debunking such claims.
“Greater reliance on social media and other platforms give people access to a wider range of sources and “alternative facts”, some of which are at odds with official advice, misleading, or simply false,” a report jointly released by Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford said.
Africa has recorded more than 336,000 cases of the virus infections so far, with nearly 9,000 deaths and over 160,000 recoveries, according to data available on the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. The acceleration of the pandemic across the continent further highlights the need to combat misinformation.
The mobile communications platform offers services using a combination of text and voice interactions, MTN Chief Executive Rob Shutter said, adding that issues of low smartphone and internet penetration in African markets were considered while building the platform.
Allaying fears of possible breach of privacy, ECA lead advisor on digital matters Tunde Fafunwa noted that personally identifiable information such as mobile numbers will not be passed on from the operators to the government. “However, we will still be able to identify hot zones through information gathered from features such as the symptom checker,” he said.