The pandemic versus tech African response(s) to a global crisis

Latitude: Medical staff help each other put on protective equipment at the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) clinic in the Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya, May 28, 2020.
Medical staff help each other put on protective equipment at the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) clinic in the Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya, May 28, 2020. | Photo (detail): Brian Inganga © AP Photo

It’s coming up to three months since the rain that is the COVID-19 pandemic started beating down on the African continent. Every day since has felt like an era. To combat this new menace, we’ve seen total and partial lockdowns introduced in many countries. In others, it’s ‘business-as-usual’. ‘Corona’ finds a long queue of issues to be addressed; there are more urgent matters to attend to such as elections and economies to build.

By Nanjira Sambuli

The first cases reported in Africa were confirmed to have come through Europe - just as it became the new epicentre of the outbreak. There have been endless predictions and ‘concerns’ about ‘Africa’s turn on the coronavirus spotlight’. ‘International’ narratives on Africa and COVID-19 exist on a pendulum: those anticipating and prophesying doomsday on one side; others have been unnecessarily overcompensating with praise for 'Africa’s response', devoid of the nuanced complexities, and as if the continent’s responses are homogenous.
 
We are living through what may come to be etched in history as the first pandemic in the digital age. COVID-19 has spread across the globe through the interconnectedness that hyper-globalisation has created. Our responses and coping mechanisms are predominantly hinged on digital technologies, and on our respective governments’ actions.

The mirage of digital solutions

The internet and our connecting devices have provided a lifeline for keeping us informed and for maintaining communication, as well as for work, education, and even access to healthcare. Mobile phones are ubiquitous the world over. In sub-Saharan Africa, there were 456 million unique mobile subscribers, 239 million mobile internet users and 39% smartphone penetration by 2018, according to the mobile industry association, GSMA. These numbers, at first glance, can give the impression that many Africans can transition to the ‘virtual world’ during this time. However, the promise and the reality have and continue to differ.
 
Digital divides between the connected and unconnected, as well as the disparate levels of connectedness for the former, have been laid bare in developing and developed countries alike. Learning, in particular, has been enormously disrupted by this pandemic. Where possible, virtual learning solutions have been applied to give some continuity to school calendars, though it has not been a smooth process. In some contexts, education systems have not been capable of ‘going digital’ overnight. In others, it has simply not been possible, because digital technologies are either unavailable or unaffordable for teachers and students. Some workarounds across Africa have included use of mass communication (TV and radio) to broadcast lessons.
 
There is a parallel outbreak of what has been called an ‘infodemic’. The internet is laden with misinformation and disinformation, conspiracy theories, an outburst of faux experts, elixirs and more. That this kind of toxic content might be a substantial, if not the only information diet for millions of people, is of grave concern. It is compounded by the trust deficit in society and further aggravated by the echo chambers and filter bubbles that are a structural part of popular social media and internet messaging platforms.

Language barriers and African ingenuity

Mitigation measures have included technical fixes on popular online platforms to amplify or redirect coronavirus-related searches to official websites such as that of the World Health Organisation. That may work, say, for content in languages like English and German, but may be harder for the thousands of indigenous ones across the global South, for which most popular platforms may not have technical or human capacity to analyse. To also redirect a non-English speaking populace to a site in English or any of the other popular languages online, is to lead them to what they could consider irrelevant content. This could disincentivise their search for factual information altogether.
 
Just as with education, not all jobs can be done virtually. This is apparent in the essential work during this time, such as care-giving and the delivery of goods and services. Before COVID-19 emerged, the International Labour Organization estimated that up to 2 billion people worked informally, a majority in emerging and developing countries. The precarity of their work has been dealt an additional blow by this pandemic. Those who can are leveraging digital technologies such as social media to source leads. Across ‘African social media’, this resilience is seen in the amplification of particular messages of people offering their services and showcasing goods to sustain an income lifeline. In my country, this is embodied in the Twitter hashtag #IkoKaziKE. It is used for announcing job opportunities (formal and informal), as well as for people to make their pitch, share qualifications etc. A gratifying aspect to it is when stories of success are shared back, a welcome virtuous circle.
 
In Africa, as in the rest of the world, lockdown fatigue is real and growing. We are all impatient to get on with life. Many countries’ strategies for easing lockdowns to accord people freer movement are pegged on the use of various digital technologies, primarily our mobile phones as proxies for monitoring our health.
 
While there have been intriguing propositions, many are  nonetheless impractical for my corner of the world. For one, smartphone penetration remains low. Also, features such as Bluetooth and mobile apps being popularised for COVID-19 tracing are energy-consuming; power sources to recharge devices are not always available, especially in rural areas. A technical workaround already put to use involves monitoring the Global Positioning System (GPS) on our phones to track our movements. Yet it is a challenging solution, as it could normalise surveillance.

The vision versus the reality

We are seeing a doubling down on technological solutionism. Those rooting for tech solutions to order our lives during and after the pandemic consider them a be-all and end-all. Granted, they have been a bridge to maintaining some semblance of normalcy during this pandemic and have transformed the future or work(places), education, conferencing and more.  However, this only applies to those with affordable, quality access to the internet, connecting devices, reliable electricity, safe homes, as well as the kinds of jobs that can be done remotely and for which they can uphold physical distancing.
 
To proceed with digital transformations that do not factor in the inequality, unavailability and insecurity of access for billions of people is to risk widening and even normalising divides between those who can reap the benefits of digitalisation and those who cannot. As we march on towards a blurring of analogue and digital, it is important to remember that digital inequalities mirror those that exist ‘offline’.

Human values are key

COVID-19 has shown that that there is digital transformation globally, albeit unevenly distributed. On the frontlines, we have seen that it is healthcare workers who have come to people’s aid. Ironically, the necessary technology - protective equipment, ventilators, even hospitals in some places - have been in short supply. In Africa, we are no strangers to adversities. We are tiding this pandemic primarily through human resilience and our sense of solidarity. No technologies, however advanced, can replicate or replace that. Fundamentally, it is people and our will to overcome that will end this pandemic. This is true of leaders and citizens alike: our resolve to adhere to what works, and to pursue what is just for all people, while steering digital technologies to support relief and restoration measures.