Keeping the world connected: Development challenges in times of COVID-19

The role of mobile technology in these trying times has never been more pivotal. Mobile technology is serving as a connectivity tool and a comfort tool, bridging the physical communication gaps between individuals and their families, friends and colleagues.

The mobile ecosystem has stepped up to the challenge by taking measures to ensure quality is maintained in the face of increasing demand for mobile services during the pandemic. Interestingly, COVID-19 is resulting in a bump in ‘voice traffic’ on mobile networks, as the demand for voice communication rises. Thanks to strides in the capabilities of mobile networks, 4G technology, which accounts for half of total mobile connections globally in 2020, is allowing for seamless video connectivity making remote working and online education possible.

Dealing with development challenges across the globe

As the number of coronavirus cases rises in developing countries, the potential health and economic consequences are direr due to poor health indicators and overburdened health systems. Global best practices and approaches could be key in not only controlling the spread but also helping people deal with the changed circumstances. Here are some of the ways the mobile ecosystem is helping to mitigate and curtail the spread of COVID-19:


  • Spreading awareness – Traditional SMS and social media applications have been powerful tools in spreading awareness. These tools are helping people identify symptoms and take preventive measures as well as in communicating government advice on the pandemic. In Kenya, Safaricom and Airtel have set up a toll-free line for customers to access information and updates. WhatsApp and the World Health Organization (WHO) have launched a chatbot that answers questions about the pandemic. In India, Bharti Airtel has launched a self-diagnostic tool for its customers to check coronavirus symptoms. In an effort to help reduce the spread of panic, channels including WhatsApp, Facebook, Google, Reddit and Twitter have taken steps to launch fact-checking initiatives for content on their platforms. In light of this, the UN Human Rights agency has called on all governments to refrain from blocking or restricting internet access. UNHCR is already using mobile apps to communicate COVID-19 related messaging to beneficiaries in Kenyan refugee camps.

Tracing and testing:

  • Identifying unreported and undiagnosed cases to control the spread – The Singapore government launched the TraceTogether application for community-driven contact tracing. The app uses Bluetooth signals to identify people who have been in close proximity – within 2 metres distance for at least 30 minutes.


  • Artificial Intelligence is being used to analyse past and ongoing medical research globally – In mid-March 2020, the White House and a coalition of leading research groups released the Covid-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19), which includes over 24,000 research papers from peer-reviewed journals. This freely available dataset is provided to the global research community to apply recent advances in natural language processing and other AI techniques to generate new insights in support of the ongoing fight against this infectious disease. The Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Foundation have established the Global MediXchange for Combating COVID-19 (GMCC) programme, to facilitate continued communication and collaboration across borders, as well as to provide the necessary computing capabilities and data intelligence to empower pivotal research efforts.

Enabling life under quarantine

  • Promoting cashless transactions – In order to prevent cash acting as a ‘fomite’, a number of mobile operators in Africa are lowering or removing mobile money transaction fees to promote cashless transactions. Additionally, mobile money providers have expanded transaction and wallet balance limits to promote broader use of mobile money services by small traders and SMEs. Examples include Safaricom and Airtel in Kenya, MTN and Orange Cameroon, MTN and Airtel Uganda, MTN and Zamtel in Zambia, among others.
  • Enabling seamless connectivity to enable remote working – Vodafone Group laid out a five-point plan to help counter the impacts of the outbreak. In a statement, the operator said it was putting measures in place to help maintain the quality of service of networks; provide network capacity and services for critical government functions; improve dissemination of information to the public; enable home working and help the small and micro businesses within its supply chain; and improve governments’ insights into people’s movements in affected areas
  • Enabling online education – With schools closed in many countries, students are relying on online education tools to keep up with their curriculums. In Senegal, Sonatel is offering 1 GB free education pass to students for 30 days, giving them access to high quality education via University of Senegal. In South Africa and Ghana, operators Telkom and MTN have zero-rated many educational and awareness websites to support home learning during school closures. In Sri Lanka, Dialog has deployed a suite of free educational content and applications for students to continue learning from home. In Syrian refugee camps, teachers are using WhatsApp groups to send digital lessons to their students.
  • Providing social-emotional support – Sesame Workshop is launching new global content to help children and caregivers stay physically and mentally healthy during the COVID-19 response. In the Middle East, Sesame Workshop is sharing this content through Ahlan Simsim, the new Arabic-language version of Sesame Street aimed at supporting young children across the region, especially those affected by displacement. The new mobile-enabled COVID-19 content, including PSAs and infographics, promotes healthy habits and supports caregivers in addressing their children’s social-emotional needs, like dealing with feelings of fear, loneliness and frustration. Ahlan Simsim also continues to provide early learning opportunities to children at home through content on digital channels.

Globally, as we face these uncertain and challenging times, the role of the mobile ecosystem will become even more critical in effectively dealing with the outbreak, particularly in developing countries. We hope that mobile ecosystem players can draw from these examples to help curtail and mitigate the impact of this pandemic.