South Africa’s COVID-19 Information App most popular with urban dwellers, women and youth

Nation-states the world over are seized with what constitutes the best public policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the delicate balancing act between nationwide shutdowns, business relief and social protection programmes, there is growing interest in what constitutes effective government crisis communication – more so, in a digital age, and particularly for the global South.  

While digital technologies have defused rapidly worldwide over the last decade and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the use of digital technologies to be more critical than ever before, concerns about accessibility constraints remain as four billion of the world’s seven billion population, a little more than half, still lack access to the internet (World Bank, 2020). These trends raise pertinent questions about how crisis government communication innovations might play out in transitional and highly unequal societies.

Many contemporary studies on crisis government communications during the pandemic have relied on either extensive literature reviews (Hayland-Wood et al. 2020) or quantitative developed countries comparisons (Chang, 2020; Kim and Kreps, 2020). As a point of departure, the RIA COVID-19 response survey seeks to provide empirical evidence on government communications strategies’ efficacy by evaluating the effective demand for information by mobile phone users in South Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic (2020-2021). South Africa is a transitional economy characterized by very high levels of inequality (63% Gini coefficient in 2014 according to the official figures). Also, the Government, in partnership with the private sector, introduced a COVID alert app to help with contact tracing and COVID-19 information dissemination.

Despite access to the internet being relatively more skewed towards men (66%) than women (59 %) mobile phone users in South Africa (on average 62% South African mobile phone users – 21 million of the 34 million mobile phone users in South Africa have access to the internet), the 2021 RIA South African phone survey finds that proportionately more South African women than men used the COVID-19 app. More specifically, 87% of women mobile phone users with access to the internet in South Africa used the COVID-19 app, in contrast with 79% among their male counterparts (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1: COVID-19 App Use of mobile phone users with internet access by Gender

The 2021 RIA South Africa Mobile Phone Survey also finds that 85% of the male mobile phone users with access to the internet that did not make use of the COVID-19 app (85% of the 21% in the right in figure 1 above) but followed the COVID news through conventional sources (138,000 mobile phone users in the population) in contrast to 20% of the female mobile phone users with access to the internet that did not make use of the COVID-19 app (20% of the 13% on the left in figure 1 above) but followed COVID news through conventional sources (about 30 000 mobile phone users in the population). In other words, the substitution effect towards the COVID-19 app was less pronounced among South African men than women and rendered male preferences for conventional news and information sources to be sticky.

Figure 2: Heard and Not Heard about COVID-19 App by Location

Consistent with expectations, the RIA phone survey finds an urban bias in COVID-19 app access and use in South Africa. More pointedly, 46% of the 22 million urban resident mobile phone users heard of the COVID app compared to 36% of their 12 million rural counterparts. Similarly, 54% of the urban residents had not heard of the COVID app in contrast to 64% of their rural counterparts (see Figure 2 above).  Only 2.6 million of phone user that heard of the app actually downloaded the COVID-19 app, and 75% of these (1 910 660 in number) resided in urban areas, whereas only 25% (636 044 phone users) were rural dwellers, confirming that urban residents were the primary beneficiaries of this crisis government information communication strategy. Similar research and development investments should be implemented to enhance rural information dissemination and minimize the existing urban-rural service delivery divide.

The survey also confirmed that the youth used the COVID-19 app more than any other age grouping. As a proportion of the age group, the 18-34 years category had 87% of the mobile phone users using the COVID-19 app, followed by 81.5% in the 35-65 years category, and then 60.4% in the 16-17 years old category. 

Delving more deeply into the reasons why mobile phone users downloaded but did not use the COVID-19 app reveals that users: (i) did not find it helpful as similar information was available on other platforms (70.6%), (ii) believed the app used too much data (23.1%), and (iii) concerned about privacy issues on the app (6.4%). While reasons (i) and (iii) are explained above and in the full South Africa Country report, respectively, the suggestion that the COVID-19 app uses too much data confirms a well-established fact that the app requires data to download and use. Although the Government of the Republic of South Africa and mobile network operators have supposedly implemented a zero-rating on the use of the COVID-19 app, the practice is somewhat different. It requires some finetuning.

About 43% of the mobile phone users in South Africa (14.5 million in number) heard of the COVID app, 10.1 million of these that heard of the app were actually had the internet to download the app, and only 25% of 10.1 million mobile users that heard of the app and actually downloaded the COVID app (about 2,6 million South African mobile phone users – 18% of the 14.5 million that heard of the app). Although the percentage of mobile users that heard and downloaded the COVID app, it was way below of critical threshold of 60% downloads required for South Africans to meaningfully unlock the effectiveness and network effects of the app (i.e. big data and non-manual contact tracing that involves among other things direct proximity detection, position-based GPS-cell tower triangulation tracking and physical QR code scanning), relatively high retention levels among those that downloaded the app were observed. As much as 77% of the mobile phone users that heard and downloaded the app (2.6 million users mentioned above) still have the COVID app (nearly two million mobile phone users in South Africa). The low adoption rate appears rooted then in a combination of factors, including the availability of alternate sources of information, gender, age, location, and affordability of data.

The implications of this for public health communications during pandemics is that it needs to be multipronged if governments are to respond to pandemics successfully. More specifically, digital information needs to be innovatively packaged for women, youth and urban residents and simultaneously disseminate the same information through conventional channels for the men, elderly, and rural residents.

Further, unlocking the full network effects of the COVID-19 alert app and other innovative government communications technologies requires enhanced policy coordination, zero rated services, or free public wi-fi. RIA has proposed a rebate of 100MB to cover the  50MB to download the app and other communication costs needed to support isolation or seek information about COVID-19 in place of the zero-rating the use of the app only.

  • This blogpost draws on research undertaken as part of the IDRC funded COVID-19 Responses for Equity (CORE). It provides selected high-level insights into pandemic outcomes from a demand-side perspective in relation to digital, financial, and intersectional inequalities.