How world leaders have used the humble SMS to help combat Covid-19

SMS has been used in many different ways by governments across the globe and this post details, just a few of the most interesting use cases we found.

So 2020, among many other things, is the year a large telecoms business (we can’t say who) managed to get Barack Obama to speak at one of their online events. And while politics to telecoms may seem quite a leap, this year has seen leaders all over the world harness the power of SMS, to effectively communicate with the public. Given the unfolding situation regarding the pandemic, the reach and speed of SMS has made it an ideal choice: 

  • 95% average open rate in the UK and 94% globally
  • 90% of all text messages read within just 3 minutes

But before we get into all that good, slightly more serious stuff, we thought we’d have a little fun. What started out as I wonder what mighty mobile is Barack Obama approved, turned into a rather joyous google hunt. So, to spread the joy in what has been a rather turbulent year, we have detailed our three favourite world leader mobile discoveries:

Illustration titled Mr president you've got a text

Jacinda Ardern

Starting off easy and a touch predictable – the New Zealand President is an iPhone user. But what we like about this fact, is the accompanying anecdote that the US comedian Stephen Colbert managed to disable her phone, entering multiple incorrect passwords and failing to get close enough for facial recognition. Better luck next time Colbert.

Vladimir Putin

Now for Mr. Putin there are mixed reports. According to one of his spokesperson’s, Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin literally doesn’t have a mobile. If he needs to make a call, one of his assistants will hand him a smartphone. But, he has been photographed using a MTS-Glonass 945 and other reports say this was specifically designed for him and boasts airtight security. And really, the latter seems a little more convenient. 

Angela Merkel

For the German Chancellor, it’s not one, but two mobiles – the Nokia 6260 Slide and Blackberry Q10. We know, a blackberry. They still exist and apparently have been quite popular among world leaders in the past. Who knew! 

Fun right? Now, back to the topic at hand – how have world leaders across the globe used SMS to help combat Covid-19? Well, let’s start with a recap of how the UK government has used text messaging during the pandemic. In addition to using SMS to deliver Covid-19 test results, the government also sent a bulk SMS to all citizens urging people to stay at home, with a link to the government’s dedicated coronavirus website page – illustrated on the right. Moreover, an SMS was also sent to all of those who had been identified as high risk, again reiterating the importance of staying home.

These messages enabled the government to recite the original message of – 

Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.  

And this consistency went some way towards making people feel more secure, and by including a link to the government coronavirus webpage, also helped ensure that people had access to correct information.

Beyond this however, SMS has been used in many different ways by governments further afield and below, are just a few of the most interesting use cases we found.

Utilising SMS to share accurate information – Philadelphia, United States

To ensure the citizens of Philadelphia remained informed, the City of Philadelphia used it’s text alert system to send daily coronavirus updates to the public. The simple opt in required individuals to text the keyword COVIDPHL to a dedicated shortcode, and the service attracted nearly 32,000 people. Messages varied from updating citizens on restrictions, to educating them on potential symptoms.  Great example of a government body taking a more proactive approach to combatting fake news.

Monitoring citizen movement during lockdown – Greece

Residents in Greece are required to obtain permission via SMS to leave their home during the country’s second lockdown. Individuals must send an SMS to a five-digit shortcode, that includes their name, address and the reason why they need to leave their house. This is required for everything from walking a pet to going food shopping. While this may seem a little intense, it has proved very effective and well, wait until you read our use case from South Korea.

Emergency alerts and prevention instructions – South Korea

For people living within South Korea, emergency texts from officials are delivered roughly 3-5 times a day. Sounds relaxing right?! These messages vary from reminders and instructions on how individuals can prevent the disease from spreading, to detailed accounts of exact locations and movements of those who have tested positive for Covid-19. To an extent, this doesn’t seem that surprising, however some of the movement accounts do seem scarily detailed. But the one thing we loved about this messaging service was the fact that one of the district’s, is also using this to educate citizens on how to care for seniors during the pandemic. And well, we think that’s just lovely.  

Providing local health information – New York, United States

Finally, New York City has also set up a dedicated COVID keyword, but this was specifically for local COVID updates. Although we think this is a great idea as it helps ensure citizens aren’t confused by changing and differing restrictions, e.g. under what circumstances they can travel, the main reason we have included this use case is because interestingly, the city actually has 11 different SMS alerts citizens can opt into. Our favourite? The one used to ‘find farmers markets near you’. Because no one wants to struggle to find great produce. 

To conclude, the humble SMS really has been working overtime and continues to prove what an effective communication tool it can be. 

If you’d like more information on how we’ve helped local governments and businesses more generally improve the effectiveness of their communications during this difficult period, simply get in touch with one of our friendly team at