FILE - A person uses a smartphone app in Beijing, China, March 18, 2020.
FILE - A person uses a smartphone app in an illustration photo taken March 18, 2020. South African organization Praekelt.org has gone global with a Whatsapp bot that raises awareness about the coronavirus.

WASHINGTON - A WhatsApp bot developed by a South African organization is helping millions of people around the world get the latest information about the coronavirus.

At the time the virus broke out, Praekelt.org had already created digital tools to help people in the developing world improve their health and well-being. One of their most successful was called MomConnect, a mobile phone service giving expectant mothers vital information about pregnancy milestones and linking them to services.

A WhatsApp image of a phone displays WHO messaging.

Gustav Praekelt, the founder of Praekelt.org, saw a similar need for information relating to coronavirus. The South African government had set up hotlines, but they were unable to handle the massive volume of calls and misinformation was spreading quickly.

“We were worried that our users wouldn't have access to a trusted source of information,” Praekelt told VOA. “So people hear rumors and they hear stories, and people get panicky and worried about what they should do, to keep themselves healthy, especially as all the lockdowns started happening.”

Praekelt created COVID-19 Health Alert, offering a WhatsApp-based helpline, realtime data and automated responses to common questions in numerous languages. Within the first 10 days, the bot had 3.5 million users and Praekelt partnered with the World Health Organization to create a similar bot to reach a global audience.

One of the primary goals is to counter false information about the pandemic.

“We're now launching in many, many, many languages, and on that bot, you can find out information but we also publish falsehoods and myths. Because sometimes what happens is you need to actively counteract the falsehoods,” Praekelt said. “You can't just provide the positive information, you also have to say, ‘There is information out there that is incorrect.’ And they are always incorrect on how to deal with this pandemic. And we are actively working towards countering those falsehoods.”

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is extremely popular in the developing world, where it has largely replaced Facebook and even email as the primary form of digital communication and networking. It has more than 2 billion users worldwide.

WhatsApp leaders say they want it to play a positive role on the African continent and beyond as a source for reliable information.

Nmachi Jidenma, strategy and business development lead at WhatsApp Inc.

“We think the most important step WhatsApp can take during this crisis is to help connect people directly with public health officials providing crucial updates about coronavirus,” said Nmachi Jidenma, a member of the WhatsApp Partnerships and Business Development team, in an email to VOA.

Jidenma said the company moved quickly to make WHO Health Alert go live in as many countries as possible, including India, Singapore, Israel, Indonesia, South Africa, Nigeria, Argentina, Brazil and the United Kingdom.

“We have worked with the World Health Organization to set up WHO Health Alert and are partnering with national health ministries around the world,” Jidenma wrote.  “Each of these health alert lines provides education on myths and rumors circulating about coronavirus.”

Praekelt said the speed at which the bot has been adopted has been beyond expectations.

“We've had an unprecedented success. More than 12 million people now have accessed the WHO line in the last 10 days since we launched. And we've now launched multiple other languages as well, including Arabic and Spanish and French and more languages to come. And so clearly, people are finding the information useful,” he said.

Now, it’s time to see whether it’s having an impact on users’ behavior and health.

“I think the next step will be to try and understand how people are interpreting that information and whether it's actually helping them to change their behavior,” he added.