Around-the-clock communication fighting COVID-19: The 1212 call centre in the Central African Republic (CAR) that gets up to 3,000 calls a week

When COVID-19 resurged in CAR in early 2021, causing a 44 percent rise in deaths, the World Food Programme-led Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) re-launched its toll-free 1212 COVID-19 helpline in June at the request of the country’s Ministry of Health.

By Elizabeth Millership

The prefabricated unit containing the only dedicated COVID-19 helpline in the Central African Republic (CAR) is a beehive of activity. As one call ends, another one begins. An operator jots down her notes, swipes a hand across her forehead and takes a quick sip of water before launching into, “Hello, you’ve reached the COVID-19 helpline.” It’s another day in the fight against the pandemic in CAR.

Operators take calls around the clock. The 1212 number is a lifeline for the four million Central Africans trying to stay safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: WFP/Elizabeth Millership

Calling ‘1212’ is significant for people in CAR. It was the helpline code used in the response to the Ebola outbreak which devastated communities in neighbouring West Africa from 2014 to 2016. It is a number that no-one has forgotten.

Now, in a country already ravaged by decades of armed conflict, the call centre is a lifeline for the four million Central Africans trying to stay safe amid the pandemic.

A team of five operators answers calls around the clock, advising people on what to do if they or a family member experiences symptoms, referring them to national health authorities in suspected cases of the virus. In the call centre’s busiest week, an astounding 3,000 calls were recorded.

“I chose this job because I want to help the population protect themselves from the pandemic,” says Boguel, who became an operator at the call centre at the same time as becoming a father. “I want to help other families as much as I can — they need to be made aware of the helpline, the importance of it, and the very real dangers of COVID-19”, he says.

With a background in pharmaceutical engineering and trained to take on a high number of calls, Boguel is willing to do as much as possible: “I take on average 80 calls a day. I can do more if needed.”

The advice given by operators at the call centre is critical to curb the spread of misinformation, which can be as deadly as the virus. Information given by operators encourages early detection of illness and ultimately helps communities stay safe.

Technical support officer Labon outside the 24-hour call centre. Photo: WFP/Elizabeth Millership

“We provide advice on the reality of COVID-19, how it affects different people — mostly, we hear that people don’t know how to protect themselves against COVID-19. The information we give on this disease can save lives,” says Labon, a member of the call centre team.

Working in tandem with the operators, Labon provides technical support to his medical counterparts. “If there’s a problem here in the centre, I can fix it,” he explains.

“I love this work — I am helping out in a pandemic that is causing suffering worldwide, as well as here in CAR,” he says.

There is evidence pointing in the direction of recovery. Central Africans are ready to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and believe this is key to helping eradicate the virus. The figures speak for themselves — over half of all callers to the helpline ask about the vaccine, including where they can receive it.

Modiana (right), gives his team instructions at the 1212 call centre which has become an interface between the people of CAR and the national Ministry of Health. Photo: WFP/Elizabeth Millership

Modiana, coordinator at the call centre, sees it as a blueprint for issues beyond COVID-19. “Sometimes, we receive calls about other diseases. The 1212 number is the interface between the population and the Ministry of Health — the information exchanged is a vital source of decision-making in any response,” he says.

Access to information in a crisis is a topic close to Modiana’s heart — his older brother recently recovered from COVID-19 following a harrowing two weeks in hospital. The experience has strengthened his resolve: “The importance of this centre is huge,” he says.

As evening falls, the call centre team switches with operators working the night shift. During a pandemic, when communication can save lives, the helplines never sleep.

Special thanks to Mobile Network Operators Orange and Telecel for providing voice packages, enabling the toll-free landlines used in the call centre.

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