“WhatsApp” With Our Current Global Health? (March)

In March 2020, the Rights Writers were asked what role has the media played in covering the topic and what effects, positive and negative, has the media had on their topic, and what role ought the media to play.

Map of COVID-19 infected countries and territories in the world. Source: Wikimedia Commons

With the unprecedented and overwhelming rise of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) viral pandemic, it is perhaps critical to discuss the implications of international aid on human rights in global health now more than ever.

Adopted from the popular Swahili proverb “Hakuna Matata”, the phrase “Karibuni Tanzania. Hakuna Corona” has been circulated by today’s popular culture. This phrase translates into “Welcome to Tanzania. There is no Corona here” – that is until recently.

On Monday March 16, Tanzania reported its first case of the coronavirus. As of Friday March 27, the number has reached a total of only 13 cases. But how? The question of why there are seemingly so few cases of COVID-19 in East African nations elicits a number of interesting discussions.

At first glance, low rates of coronavirus may be attributed to the lack of testing, reporting, and institutional knowledge. But the sum of these issues significantly stifles the ability of the media to not only report on this disease, but simply communicate rudimentary knowledge surrounding it.

How do you tell communities to wash their hands, when they don’t have access to water? How can you explain the importance of social distancing when households are often forced to cramp together in small spaces in informal settlements? How do you encourage people to stay home if they’re sick, when missing work is nearly synonymous with starving to death? How do you explain the science behind viral transmission, while pastors preach that Tanzanians themselves will be protected by Jesus? In fact, public media has caused widespread belief of religious protection from the disease, which has resulted in decreased medical preparations for the potential outcomes of a coronavirus outbreak, and decreased incentives for international aid agencies to help in these preparations. Kenyan epidemiologist Nelly Yatich explains many of these issues in a recent interview regarding the coronavirus outbreak.

But these problems span beyond just this unique and novel viral outbreak. In fact, many of these exact problems can be seen in the handling and underreporting of Ebola as well. The critical role the media plays in both mediating and mitigating access to health rights is anything but novel.

Media in Tanzania is surveyed relatively strictly by the government, with limitations on freedoms of press. Since the passage of the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations in 2018, blogging, podcasting, and many other means of individual content creation requires licensing and registration, the costs of which exceed two million Tanzanian shillings (around $930 USD). This equates to nearly half the annual cost of living.

WhatsApp and other messaging platforms have become powerful tools in helping healthcare workers deliver life-saving information to many hard-to-reach patients. Source: Public Domain

Although the passage of these restrictions aims to reduce the spread of inaccurate information and perpetuation of a problematic hopeless image of Africa, they may, in turn, distance people from civic engagement, public health knowledge, and free speech.

In contrast, direct communication media platforms like WhatsApp have emerged as critical couriers of information. While more traditional media platforms are limited, cell phones and the informal social platforms they provide are not, as mobile networks and technologies are highly accessible in most low- and middle- income countries. Today, the World Health Organization has been able to deliver nearly 2 billion people information on the coronavirus through WhatsApp and Facebook. Local and international healthcare workers throughout Tanzania have used WhatsApp to disseminate vital information around immunizations, family planning, and other critical health care resources. At Duke’s Global Health Institute, text messaging services are being piloted in Moshi, Tanzania to mitigate rampant alcohol abuse.

WhatsApp and similar applications are modern instigators of change, knowledge, and connection to everyone around the world. Such shifts in dominant forms of media may indicate a future of more delocalized access to information, that could potentially aid in the protection of rights of the people behind the screens. Such informal media platforms, however, can just as easily cause the mass spread of misinformation.

Media has the ability to draw local and international attention on pressing health issues and distribute widespread open-source knowledge. However, the spread of dissonant messages over these platforms can also drive out well-intentioned aid organizations. International aid can absolutely leverage informal social media outlets more productively and allow media to mediate the protection of health and human rights, which aid organizations aim to address. Media can very well be the vehicle necessary for international organizations to deliver fruitful and lasting health care aid.

Globally, the rise of social media as a powerful tool in helping people access health and health care rights has been bolstered by conversations all over the internet, with hashtags including #ShiftThePower and #DecolonizeGlobalHealth. To put it in simple terms, Tanzania has a complicated relationship with the media. However, people within its borders and beyond them still continue to use social media as a tool, which will hopefully aid in the expansion and protection of human rights in East Africa and around the world.

Stay healthy and stay inside!