Access to information is essential in developing nations such as Zimbabwe as it ensures that people are well informed on their democratic rights, and that they have access to accurate information which assists them to make informed decisions. The right to access information is closely tied to other rights such as the right to privacy, and digital rights.
During natural disasters and pandemics such as Covid 19, access to information is essential in ensuring that people have relevant and accurate information pertaining to the pandemic .
In Zimbabwe, the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic saw a flood of information circulating on Facebook, twitter and WhatsApp as people were coming to terms with what living in a pandemic means. For most people this was the first time experiencing the effects of a pandemic. In the words of my 70year old father, the pandemic was the first of its kind ever since he was born.
A lot of speculations and false information circulated on social media and this in turn caused a lot of panic and anxiety specially among those affected, and people who had lost their close relatives to the Covid 19 pandemic.
Updates and official statistics from the Ministry of Health on the Covid 19 pandemic were circulated on Facebook and other social media platforms. Bulk sms were sent from Econet, which is the largest telecommunications service provider in Zimbabwe. While the bulk sms were very helpful in informing people about the latest updates on the pandemic, a number of people were disturbed by the constant updates as they raised unpleasant feelings and anxieties about their safety and well-being during the pandemic. The elderly were particularly disheartened as they feared that should they contract the virus there will be serious consequences to their health.
The handling of health information during the Covid 19 pandemic is an Indication for the need for care and sensitivity when handling sensitive information such as people’s deaths and illnesses. People’s right to privacy should be respected, while ensuring full access of information during a pandemic. There is a need to put in place policies relating to access to information during a pandemic.
There is also a need to ensure full access to health related information, using less intrusive communication methods. While telecommunications service providers spammed people with alerts and updates on the Covid pandemic, there were speculations that some of the information was not entirely accurate, as there were unrecorded cases of deaths and illnesses particularly those of people who died in their homes, and those who fell ill, but decided to use home remedies instead of visiting their nearest clinic or hospital.
While most people in urban areas were able to access information on the Covid 19 pandemic, those in rural areas were left in the dark as they had to rely on word of mouth and secondary information from their neighbours and relatives in town. To ensure full access to information, there is therefore a need to bridge the digital divide, and ensure internet access to marginalised groups and communities in Zimbabwe. Not only was internet access an issue in terms of ease of circulation of information relating to Covid 19, less privileged homes that could not afford digital technology such as smart phones and laptops were left behind.
While the internet has opened up opportunities for people to access a wide range of information from different sources, there is a need for journalists and ordinary people to ensure that the news and information that they are sharing is accurate and up to date.
Digital literacy and access to digital technology should be prioritised and policies that enable full access to information should be put in place. This would ensure the promotion of access to information particularly, health related information relating to the Covid 19 pandemic.
By Patience Shawarira | Paradigm Initiative’s Digital Rights and Inclusion Media Fellow 2021