Misinformation is one of the biggest allies of the global pandemic which is now peeling off billions from global economies. But coronavirus and internet shutdown form a deadlier duo than fake news.
Last year, internet shutdowns were more frequent and had the longest lasting periods in Africa. Now, the continent is hit with a viral outbreak, whose confirmed cases are now above 5,000. More nations are locking down, businesses are going remote, planes are the ground and commerce is bleak.
As of now, Ethiopia’s internet is censored. Millions of people living in the western Oromia—one of the 9 regional states of Ethiopia—are cut off from the web.
Human Rights Watch has condemned this because many people are missing key information that could help them better prepare against COVID-19. The shutdown has lasted months and the government is yet to reverse it despite 29 confirmed cases and counting.
But Ethiopia is not the only country in the world that’s guilty of infringing this freedom of information. In Myanmar, the government is blocking the internet for more than 1 million people in Rakhine and Chin States.
Bangladesh’s blackout and phone restrictions at Rohingya refugee camps are hindering humanitarian groups from addressing the COVID-19 threat. Togo too has experienced a shutdown in the run-up to its February 22 elections, but that was before COVID-19 made an entrance.
Ever since coronavirus found its way into India (1,590 cases), people have reported not being able to access websites that provide information about the outbreak. This is due to highly restricted speeds that make accessing anything beyond text messages nearly impossible. India packs up the most of the world’s internet shutdowns, with at least 385 ordered since 2012.
March 27, 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged all governments to end any and all internet and telecommunication shutdowns. “Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, fact-based and relevant information on the disease and its spread and response must reach all people, without exception,” his statement read.
While Ethiopia plays hide and seek with its internet, Guinea Conakry—a West African country—disrupted internet and phone call services. Though this is blamed on the damage of undersea cables, the country’s controversial referendum is a likely culprit.
Most of the internet shutdowns in Africa have been orchestrated to quell protests and avert violence. In Guinea’s case, 82-year-old President Alpha Condé is seeking a third term in office. Judging from the find that African internet shutdowns are usually associated with older leaders, this falls in line.
Internet shutdowns have become common and frequent in recent years, usually during tense periods like elections, anti-government protests, or armed conflicts—and perhaps pandemics? 33 countries enforced 213 internet shutdowns in 2019, according to Access Now.
Governments’ justifications ranged from a need to combat fake news to public safety and national security. Coronavirus and internet shutdown is Africa are a combination economies can, however, not afford right now.
Felicia Anthonio works with Access Now—an internet access advocacy group—as a Campaigner for the #KeepItOn Campaign, a global campaign that fights against internet shutdowns. In an interview with WeeTracker, she agreed that shutting down the internet, blocking social media platforms, and filtering content at this time is going to be deadly.
“In Ethiopia where there’s a communication blackout, residents are terrified because they can’t access life-saving information. Countries that shut down the internet during a pandemic like this are playing with the lives of their people.
Moreover, partial/complete lockdowns have many African companies, businesses, and schools moving online. Thus, an internet shutdown will not only aid in spreading the virus, but it will also block many from accessing vital information,” she explained.
According to Top10VPN—another internet-focused group—African economies lost USD 2.13 Bn to internet shutdowns in 2019. That value is the GDP of Comoros, Sao Tome & Principe and Seychelles put together. Based on records, the trend is likely to continue this year as several elections are set, the first of which (Guinea’s) is already a confirmation.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) has analyzed that COVID-19 has already gorged USD 29 Bn from African economies. As recessions wait at the door, the pandemic will shave off 1.4 percent of the USD 2.1 Tn cumulative GDP of Africa due to an encompassing destruction of businesses on the continent and across the globe.
A compendium of losses from the coronavirus and internet shutdown would lead to nothing short of an economic disaster. Experts expect some economies to go into recession post-COVID-19. A combination of these two will make that happen much faster and more drastically.
For example, South Africa is the most affected country in Africa in terms of the novel virus (currently at 1,298 active cases). The nation just entered another recession, and is now on lockdown.
Imagine what an internet shutdown could do to such a country. Even another breakage of undersea cables that’s now slowing internet speeds is already showing adverse effects, especially for those working from home.
Debt is also at high levels, so much that Africa’s lenders had a brief finger-pointing session. Though the IMF and the World Bank has directed all lenders to pause on repayments for now, there are still monetary issues to be addressed once the trying times are over.
African countries have either already borrowed or are expecting financial aid to cushion the effects of the global pandemic on their economies. Even the continent’s largest economies are borrowing to stay on their feet.
The world is using the internet now more than ever. This has telling effects on bandwidth stretches in streaming platforms like YouTube, whose video quality is thus reduced. Even so, Africans pay some of the highest prices globally for internet connectivity.
If not for video conferencing, there’s hardly any way the Kenyan judiciary would still be dishing out justice. Remote work, for many firms, is now being trialled for the first time—a way to keep the business landscape alive in the face of a global pandemic.
“Experts continue to advise people to avoid public spaces, to stay home as much as possible and encourage people to work from home. People won’t be able to work from home without the internet.
Given the crucial role the internet is playing, it is essential that governments and stakeholders keep those connected to the internet online and push to connect those that are offline,” said Anthonio.
Mobile money crossed the 1 billion user mark last year, half of which came from Africa. That’s good news for Africa’s battle against the pandemic, as cash has been flagged by the WHO as a conduit for the spread of the coronavirus.
Facebook and WhatsApp are helping to fight fake news and misinformation. However, coronavirus and internet shutdown should never cross paths, let alone embrace.
Featured Image: Amnesty International
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