Canadians with wireless devices could soon be getting COVID-19 prevention advice by text as part of an arrangement between the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The three organizations said Monday they have started asking wireless carriers around the world to carry “vital health messaging” relating to the virus. The initiative builds on current efforts to disseminate general health messages through the joint WHO-ITU BeHe@lthy BeMobile initiative.
“Now more than ever, technology must ensure that everyone can access the information they need,” the three agencies said in a statement.
The statement didn’t indicate how many text messages would be sent out a day. The ITU is a UN agency that establishes global standards for telecommunications.
The coronavirus notifications will start in the Asia Pacific region and then roll out globally. The partners said their goal is to reach everyone with vital health messages, whatever their connectivity level. Texting will help reach those who have mobile devices that aren’t connected to the internet. The ITU estimates 3.6 billion people remain offline.
The World Health Organization already sends out messages through internet-based social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Pinterest, Snapchat, YouTube and WhatsApp.Canadian carriers were caught off-guard by the announcement.
“We haven’t heard from the ITU on this initiative,” Marc Choma, Bell Canada’s director of communications, said in an email. “We’re always open to discussion with government and other organizations about ways technology can help in the fight against COVID-19,” he added. For example, he noted, in mid-March Bell and other Canadian carriers agreed to send Candian government support and contact messages to assist Canadians living or travelling abroad.
Asked for comment, spokespersons for Rogers Communications and Telus said they are looking into the announcement.
Canadian telecom consultant Mark Goldberg said in an email that while the initiative is well-intentioned and some countries may benefit, Canadian carriers shouldn’t distribute information from outside agencies like the WHO.
“Canada has health officials at multiple levels of government who should be the authorities we rely upon to distribute appropriate health information and alerts to residents. As an example, we have already seen Canadian health departments make use of the National Public Alert System to issue COVID-19 bulletins. Within the Canadian context, co-ordinating relationships exist between national and provincial health agencies, public safety bureaus and telecommunications services providers. There is no need or reason to bypass their role.”