Tanzania: The State of Digital Access & Rights during COVID19

COVID19 Virus

The novel human coronavirus disease COVID-19 has become the fifth documented pandemic since the 1918 flu pandemic. COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China, and subsequently spread worldwide. The coronavirus was officially named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses based on phylogenetic analysis.

My personal Experience

The first time I heard about COVID19 I was pursuing my Masters at the University of Leeds in the UK. The first wave of information was associated a lot with what was considered as the flu just affecting the Chinese. I was very comfortable then, sympathising with China of course but it never ever crossed my mind that it would hit home. When it started to spread and hit Italy, then I was very alert and understood for the first time the seriousness of the virus and the matter itself. I was still a bit comfortable, not as before but still comfortable. I thought to myself, I am in one of the states in the world considered to have the most excellent health system in the world. Even if I got the flu, I was in the right place of the world. How ignorant I and the majority was. By the time it hit the United Kingdom, I had no care of the excellent health system, the only place I wanted to be was my home, Tanzania. The spread was affecting national decisions by the hour.

On the 16th of March I had spent the whole day in the Library, studying while following up news about the spread. I remember it was around 19:00hrs to 20:00hrs, when I read the news update: Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised everyone in the UK against “non-essential” travel and contact with others, to curb coronavirus, as well as to work from home if possible and avoid visiting social venues such as pubs, clubs or theatres. That is when I knew for a fact a compulsory lockdown would occur. I bought the flight ticket immediately to my country, and the rest remains history.

COVID19 in the Tanzanian Perspective

Living in Tanzania one can almost forget that the world is still facing critical challenges in regards to COVID19. There is a group of majority who do not even have an idea that the virus has hit home before or that we are also part of the rest of the world being affected by the epidemic.

The Tanzanian government does not acknowledge that COVID19 exists to the Tanzanians. As such the topic of COVID19 is considered taboo when it comes to collecting information and data, doing research, reporting any negative news or implying in any way that Tanzanian people are being affected by the virus; the reality seems to be favouring the government’s perspective on the matter.

The government has adopted the National Standard Operating Procedure (SOPs) more as to accommodate International standards for international travellers and travelling for the medical health certificates are mandatory to the rest of the world. While the rest of the world is openly taking measures and applying means of combating COVID19 in their countries, for Tanzania it is a different case. It had been officially declared by the state that the virus is not a threat and indeed people would not die from it for it is just another type of flu and that life should go back to business as usual.

COVID19 is a very mundane area of interest and carries a lot of weight in the need to contextualise understanding of it in the Tanzanian context. For instance, while it is okay to wear a mask if you wish to as an individual and a very few in a group, it might be seen as a Political statement wearing the mask in certain circumstances, such as a the whole of a huge crowd publicly.

Nevertheless, self measures are allowed (individually or as an organisation); thus there are organisations (especially those operating at international standards) that apply all preventive measures, such social distance, use of sanitisers and use of masks.

Tanzania brief timeline to the development of COVID19 in the country;

A brief timeline which just depicts the entry and departure point of COVID19 in Tanzania

Digital State during COVID19

One of the enhanced features and significance during the COVID19 was the applications of Digital Technology in planning, communication and response approach at National level as well as institutional level. While the rest of the world had adopted Digital Health Technology to facilitate strategy and response, for Tanzania it was partly applied. The government coordinated information and mostly it was released in a Press conference observing the social distancing approach.

Tanzania had never reached a stage of lockdown of any form despite the education centres being closed as well as a ban on huge public gatherings that was imposed while citizens were encouraged to leave home only for essential purposes despite the fact that the workplaces were supposed to remain operational. People and organisations all over the world adjusted to new ways of work and life thus the pandemic led to an inevitable surge in the use of digital technologies an extent which was applied minimally in the country.

Nevertheless the containment measures were emphasised and strictly applied in the public in terms of safety. On the other-side organisations which were directly affiliated or operated under the requirements of International standards, especially in the Civil Society Organisations world, they too adjusted to a new way of working from home and imposed self-lockdown. The above state of affairs plus the government’s decision to keep its land and water borders open with no formal restrictions has made the Digital aspect in Tanzania seem as significantly less relevant in some cases as compared to the rest of the world.

The rest of the world banked on Digital technologies to harness and support the public-health response to COVID-19, including population surveillance, digital based identification, tracing and evaluation of digitally innovative and applied interventions on the basis of mobility data and communication with the public. With the world woven together and operating as this one body because of globalisation, Tanzania might have succeeded in isolating itself in the way it had applied measures in combating COVID19 in terms of no lockdown; it however did not succeed isolating itself from the effect of the virus on the Digital Economy of the country. The world is all connected in one way or another.

In June, 2020 the World Bank economic analysis showed that the cost of the pandemic was being felt in Tanzania as well. The World Bank’s 14th Tanzania Economic Update (TEU) forecasted economic growth to slow sharply in 2020, to 2.5 percent from the 6.9 percent growth the government reported in 2019.

An area which suffered most in the digital state was that of Digital Citizen Engagement with massive information flow of distortion in regards to the virus. This had triggered an unprecedented demand of the government to be very restrictive of the news and information interns of COVID19. In a span of 2 months, there were a few citizens and journalists who were held accountable for what was stated as mis-information that they had shared to the public whether through Social Media or mainstream platforms.

The state of Digital Rights during COVID19

According to the Tanzania Communications and Regulatory Authority (TCRA) the internet users in 2017 were 22 million, in 2018 the internet users were 23 million, in 2019 the internet users were 25 million and 2020 breaks the record for having the highest record of internet subscribers to close to 28 million in a period of nine months (January — September, 2020).

Digital technologies have proven to the world to be a key part of solutions during the COVID19 crisis. While Tanzania might not agree that COVID19 exists in the country, it does not change the need for the Tanzanian community to be agile and adapt or/and enhance the new digitally required skills so as to ensure that businesses and organisations continue operations and national and international level. This ascertains the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) emphasis on how Digital technologies will also be pivotal to the future sustainability of towns and cities everywhere, particularly as we enter the Decade of Action to address the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Understanding the Digital Rights is only fair to bring out the most obvious aspects and challenges facing the Tanzanian majority being digitally excluded. With a country where it’s population is almost 60 million compared to 27 million internet subscribers the digital divide gap is huge. The digital divide is severe when it comes to gender digital divide and more so when it comes to people with disabilities. These gaps are worse in times of crises such as in the case of COVID19.

Theories on the state of Digital Rights during COVID19

Understanding the State of Digital Rights in Tanzania needs a different approach from the rest of the world. There are two theories to the matter.

The first, Tanzania has no COVID19 — any disrupted rights are pushed by external factors irrelevant to the COVID19 virus. As Tanzanians we are legally liable for agreeing and standing by the fact that the government has successfully combated COVID19 and it remains only in other countries and the rest of the world. This theory holds water in many areas in the country as well as the majority Tanzanians’ pushed by the fact that the information and news in regards to the anguish and consequences of the virus, over 1.4 million deaths, people losing jobs and loved ones, infecting millions and bringing economic activity to a near-standstill while these countries impose restrictions on movement with lockdown. The conservations redirect us to a discussion of the state of Digital Rights back to the digital divide gap and most important subject is the gender digital divide as a result of a variety of factors.

The second thought is held by those who say and believe that Tanzania is also directly vulnerable to COVID19 and it is just because it is not collecting nor testing the virus. Tanzania officially stopped recording data on the virus on the 29th of April, 2020. The country has been widely criticized for its COVID-19 response, which has mainly involved widespread denialism. Nevertheless this group does acknowledge that despite this strict control over information on this national denialism, it was evident that it was/is widely accepted without any challenge.

Factors affecting Digital rights

  1. The new Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2020 causes Digitally facilitated Repression at individual and institutional level. The regulations ban on sharing information on COVID-19 which has been criticised having been used as a means of preventing citizens or media to report/comment in regards to the pandemic.
  2. Digital Technologies considered and a negative aspect in the majority of society, a lot of effort is placed to discouraging use of Smartphones and Digital Technologies especially on Women.
  3. Online Gender Based violence; surveys we did through the Women At Web project showed that more than 70% of women suffer from mental stress and anxiety due to their experiences of online violence. While there is no serrated data, the quick surveys give a reflection of experiences of women online. It goes against their Digital Rights to participate fully and freely.
  4. Internet disruptions imposed by Mobile companies in recent weeks especially during the General Elections of 2020. The internet and social media has been disrupted at a great cost to the the digital economy and freedom of online expression and digital participation.
  5. Technological Gap; areas with access to reliable internet separates regions from others. This hampers the access and possibilities of people to have access to the resource. Thus the growth of those with digital skills and those with lack of.

The term Digital Rights goes together with “Responsibilities” as well. While the user might have the right to be Digitally privileged, they also have a responsibility to be responsible at making sure they play part to enhancing responsive Digital Inclusion and use. National coordination and cooperation and measures to enhance access to the internet as well as advocate against digital divide are necessary for all the key players and respective authorities.

Expert at the intersection of Internet on Information, Innovation, Technology & Governance in New Media | DW Certified Trainer | CEO at Media Convergency