Since the reality of the novel coronavirus dawned on South Africa, where 202 people had been infected by Friday, the national hotline for queries on the virus has been ringing off the hook.
However, prank callers have been delaying the response time for those who have legitimate queries.
“We have recorded a high number of prank calls and we wish to urge the public to desist from such behaviour as it takes away resources from those who need them the most,” the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said.
Over the weekend, the national department of health introduced Covid-19 Connect, a WhatsApp-based helpline to deliver accurate, up-to-date information to South African citizens during the current Covid-19 global pandemic.
By Wednesday, more than 1.5 million South Africans had engaged with the department’s Covid-19 Connect WhatsApp Helpline and it has served over 15 million messages.
In addition, since the activation of the first Covid-19 public hotline number, the NICD, a division of the National Health Laboratory Service, recorded high call volumes from the public hotline where more than 650,000 calls were received by Friday morning.
The NICD has decided to add two additional hotline numbers to capacitate and up-scale timeous response of inquiries for the public and doctors.
Clinicians can now contact the new clinicians’ hotline number on 0800 111 131 (for doctors only); and, in addition to 0800 029 999, the public can also contact the public hotline number on 0800 111 132. These lines all operate 24 hours a day.
Nevashan Govender, emergency operations centre manager at the NICD, said some of the most frequently asked questions or queries callers have included:
- Where can I get tested for Covid-19?
- Can the NICD come to my house to test because I need to use public transport to go to the local hospital and I don’t want to infect others?
- Who will pay for my test?
- I have more than 100 guests for my upcoming event and I cannot get a refund
- My travel/agent airline won’t refund my travel
- A friend/cousin/neighbour/colleague/acquaintance is a Covid-19 case, I want to get tested
- My company won’t let me come to work without a negative test result after my travel to a foreign country.
Govender said the main purpose of the hotline is to provide accurate, scientifically sound information to the general public, to assist to combat fake news and myths on social media, and to assist in calming the general public panic by being an open and honest communication channel.
But prank callers have been hampering the NICD’s efforts to timeously respond to legitimate callers.
“As this is a toll-free number, prank calls have been adding to the incoming volumes. This limits the time a nurse can give to a legitimate caller,” Govender said.
“In addition, many calls are mostly a result of the irresponsible sharing of fake news and misinformation on social media.”
Govender said people should call the hotline for the following reasons:
- If they require any general information on Covid-19;
- If they cannot access any of the updated documents on the website;
- If they require clarification on how to apply preventative measures; and
- If they need assistance in understanding the case definition.
However, people should not call if they are sick and need medical attention.
“No diagnosis can be done over the phone, they must get to a healthcare professional. If they suspect someone has Covid-19, they must get to a healthcare professional.”
In addition, the hotline does not give advice about travelling or provide supporting letters to negotiate refunds for cancelled travel or events owing to Covid-19 restrictions.
Long waiting times
In terms of complaints from the public about long waiting times, the NICD said it had increased its capacity for overflow from its primary call centre, as well as the number of doctors on the clinical hotline.
“All the general information is available on our website as well as through the [health department’s] WhatsApp service,” Govender said.
People don’t need to call the hotline to get general information that can be obtained from the NICD’s website, the health department’s website, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) website or via the department’s WhatsApp service.
According to the department, Covid-19 Connect was created in the space of just one week by Praekelt.org, using Turn.io technology that delivers automated informational responses providing answers to the most frequently asked questions about Covid-19 and the coronavirus.
Debbie Rogers, managing director of Praekelt.org, said: “Covid-19 Connect, endorsed by the department of health and the NICD, is already playing an important role in supporting the department’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.
“Using the WHO’s up-to-the-minute information, coupled with localised news updates and information on prevention, symptoms, treatment, risks, travelling and testing, Covid-19 Connect is helping mitigate against the misinformation that can distract from critical health prevention support across all levels of society.
“In addition, Covid-19 Connect also provides real-time data insights to support effective decision-making by the South African government around Covid-19.
“The Covid-19 Connect Helpline will soon be available in additional languages, and is being made available to other countries and organisations to support their efforts in urgently tackling the pandemic,” said Rogers.
“President Cyril Ramaphosa asked that we act together, act now and act decisively. The National department of health, the teams from WhatsApp and the WHO, and our own teams at Praekelt.org and Turn.io, have done exactly this over the last few days while developing Covid-19 Connect,” said Gustav Praekelt, founder of Praekelt.org and co-founder of Turn.io.
“I’d like to thank all of the individuals and organisations involved in getting the Covid-19 Connect service up and running so quickly.”
The Covid-19 Connect WhatsApp number is 0600 123 456. South Africans are encouraged to save the number to their contacts and then WhatsApp the word “hi” to this number to start engaging with the service to get the answers they need.