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Health ministry resorts to sending SMS to deal with coronavirus

Health & Science

The Ministry of Health has resorted to sending Coronavirus information via SMS.

The first short message went out to Kenyans' Safaricom lines today.

The message read, "Kenya Health Ministry will be sending info on CoronaVirus. TOLL FREE Line: 0800721316 . Before roaming, Dial *265#, DONT MISS FREE Tips. Stop*456*9*5".

A communication liaison from the Ministry who requested anonymity said the aim was to share as much information on the virus as possible in a fast way to reach the masses.

"People need to know what to do," the source said.

Future messages will offer directions on what action to take when one suspects an infection.

Those wishing to opt out of the service can do so.

It is still unclear how often text messages will be sent out in future and whether subscribers other than Safaricom will receive the SMS. 

Bulk messaging may indeed reach the masses fast as the number of active mobile subscriptions in the country as at September 30, 2018, stood at 46.6 million, according to the Communications Authority of Kenya First Quarter Sector Statistics Report 2018-19.

During the period under review, mobile penetration surpassed the 100 per cent mark mainly attributed to the fact that most users own more than one SIM card either from the same or different service providers.

This fact is also supported by the Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey (KIHBS) report released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) in April 2018 which indicated that at least 30% of mobile users in Kenya own more than one SIM card, which translates to an average of 1.3 SIM cards per subscriber.

But the bulk message raised questions on data and how the government chooses to utilise it.

On January 31, 2019, Parliament was urged to fast-track the enactment of the Data Protection Bill to safeguard the implementation of the Access to Information Act 2016.

ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru is reported to have said it is important for parliament to pass the Data Protection Bill to safeguard against possible misuse of the provisions of Access to Information Act 2016.

Mucheru, who made the remarks, in a speech read on his behalf by Broadcasting and Telecommunication PS Fatuma Hirsi at a Nairobi hotel, said the Access to Information Act provides a framework that compels public bodies to provide information on request by the public and proactively make routine disclosure.

Mucheru further added that to actualise the Access to Information Act, the e-government services were being revamped to enable all citizens to easily access information.

The government is developing systems security framework for e-governance and sound ICT policies to facilitate citizens to access information from public entities, he went on.

To further support citizens’ access to information, the Cabinet Secretary said, ICT Authority established the Kenya Open Data Portal to ensure public free access to government data to create awareness.

Mucheru encouraged Government Ministries, Departments and Agencies of the National government to disclose information on development, demographics statistical and expenditure data.

Speaking to Standard Digital, Data and Telecoms expert Alex Gakuru said all situations need to be evaluated based on whether it's an emergency and if the information being sent out by the Ministry was well articulated.   Bulk messages that serve to calm the public or send out information fast should not be criticised, the Telecoms expert adds.   "The message adds into the strategy to respond in the event that Coronavirus cases increase."   The question still raised is whether the Ministry requested the data or whether the content of the message was forwarded to the telecommunication service providers for them to forward it to their subscribers.   Gakuru, a key advocate of the Data Protection Bill, said in the latter situation companies that did not send the message to their subscribers may need to explain why.   "The principles involved in sending out bulk SMSs ought to have been observed."   His statement is in line with the Tampere Convention, which Kenya has been a signatory to since 1998.   The Tampere Convention governs the provision and availability of communication during a disaster.

The text messages on Coronavirus come as the national government banned all conferences of international nature with more than 15 people for 30 days as a precautionary measure against the virus.

The move is part of the government's plan to improve preparedness through heightened surveillance.

The Health Ministry has also temporarily lifted the ban on Italian flights to Kenya to evacuate Italian Citizens from Kenya.

Information from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows as at March 595,333 confirmed cases had been reported globally and 3,282 deaths majority from mainland China. 

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