Jio, Airtel and BSNL have replaced call ringing tones for incoming calls with advisories for COVID-19, India Today reported. The move followed an instruction from the Department of Telecommunications, the report said, though the push for it came from the Ministry of Health. The advisory — in Hindi and English for now — warns listeners to sneeze into handkerchiefs, keep distance from people displaying symptoms of the coronavirus, to not touch one’s own face, and to visit a health centre if necessary. Users subscribed to caller tunes are exempt from this. The DoT has not made the order publicly available.

MediaNama was able to confirm all of this by calling such numbers. We also heard the message on calling Vodafone-Idea numbers.

Same tech in riots and unrest?

This seems to be the first time the government is using the ringing tone as a megaphone for its own messaging. Telecom companies have always used it to promoting caller tunes or their own tariffs. But depending on how this rollout goes, it’s not a stretch to imagine that this tech could be used to try and defuse disinformation in, say, a riot-affected area; people placing calls would hear reassurances and calls for peace, for instance.

This is not the first time the Ministry of Health has placed health advisories in the least expected of places — the Ministry was behind the move to put anti-smoking watermarks during smoking scenes in movies and TV shows in theaters and on TV. One of its officials even wrote to TRAI asking the regulator to require streaming services to display similar warnings.