How a Ghana-based mental health service is helping fight the COVID-19 pandemic

In the wake of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic that plagued the world, one thing that has been identified to be worse than the outbreak itself was the misinformation.

I once spoke to Angie, my friend in England who said that she had deliberately stayed away from the news in order to keep her sanity. Jen in United States also said same.

In the case where there’s an influx of information, there’s also the likelihood that false information would also be peddled.

This has many repercussions on one’s mental health, how one judges the gravity of the pandemic and the efforts of public health authorities at containing the spread of the pandemic.

Additionally, inadequate information about the disease may also hinder government’s efforts at containing the outbreak. Much of the communication by the government and health agencies are done by mass media and via portals which may require some form of internet connectivity.

Now, what happens to those persons who don’t have mobile data, or who lack access to a smartphone to access all the updates on the outbreak, or get up to date with the tips on how to keep safe?

The people who can’t afford internet data or airtime are most likely to be the socially excluded, or those who may lack access to good social amenities and live in clustered settlements, hence they are more likely to contract the infection and spread it as well. This emphasizes the need for more efforts to be concentrated at reaching such people.

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My participation as panelist at the “Inclusion Matters in Africa” event during the 2019 annual IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington DC was indeed an eye-opener about the varied dimensions of social exclusion.

And particularly in this case, I got some keen insight about how this was a major problem in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak in my country, Ghana.

In this regard, I marshaled my team to develop some innovative tools which would provide authentic information to those who had access to internet as well as those who could not afford airtime or had no access to a smartphone device.

For the former group, we created a Telegram chatbot which is a one-stop-shop on all there is to know about COVID-19 in Ghana. Users can access the free chatbot once they have the Telegram App and receive real time updates and notifications on news as they emerged.

This is because we realized that misinformation was fueled by the lack of a single platform which housed all the information one needed about the disease and so we developed a Telegram COVID-19 chat bot specifically for Ghanaians.

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For those who don’t own smartphones and lack access to internet connectivity, we created a toll-free short code (USSD) which had essential information stored on it.

It has a menu which is constantly updated to provide the following:

  • Real time statistics on the pandemic in Ghana and the world: This is to ensure that people get the accurate statistics as this would help them to rightly appreciate the gravity of the situation. The statistics are automatically updated in real time from the Ghana Health Service website through an artificial intelligence-powered mechanism. A menu which provides free tips on how to keep oneself safe.
  • A menu of emergency numbers in Ghana.
  • When selected, the contacts of the National COVID-19 call center are displayed on the phone screen and a free text message which contains the contacts are sent to the user at no fee.

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Although we normally focus on innovations in mental health, we realized the need to venture into reaching all with authentic and real-time information because we believed that the pandemic was a call on all to contribute to the fight in whichever capacity they could.

Today, we have been able to reach the entire country with our innovative tools, and we are very much excited about the prospects mobile phone technology has in helping to fight the pandemic.

By Atsu Latey
Founder of MindIT GH, Medical doctor and 2019 World Bank Social Inclusion Hero Finalist

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