The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has seen the introduction of restrictions in movement, gatherings, introduction of quarantines and closures of educational establishments among other measures implemented to contain the virus in Zimbabwe. This crisis has brought to the fore the importance of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in businesses, healthcare, education and public services.
Due to COVID-19 Zimbabweans are embracing the digital life; with activities ranging from online entertainment, increased use of real-time online broadcasts via platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to online meetings and even parliament sessions via platforms such as Zoom. The Ministry of Information has also been very active disseminating COVID-19 related information via online platforms and Facebook groups.
It is evident that the COVID-19 era has seen the world-wide use of technology on an unprecedented scale to keep people safe, as well as to ensure continuity of general life, education and businesses. As the world continues to fight COVID-19 the role of ICT to enhance disease surveillance, coordinate response mechanisms, and promote public awareness has become more significant.
The pandemic has brought to the fore, what has already been known, that many in Zimbabwe lack access to the internet, as well as the equipment that would enable them to work remotely and access vital services through online platforms. With many people restricted to working/studying from home, the impact of the pandemic has shown the importance of ICT in Zimbabwe now more than ever.
With the closings of schools, universities and technical and vocational training institutions, following the COVID-19 crisis, the education sector has been forced to rely on online courses and distance learning. The repercussions on the education and university systems are unprecedented.
Even though the Government identified ICTs as a vital catalyst for economic development; it has not followed this up with effective implementation and establishment of the infrastructure to enable this to bear fruit; especially in this pandemic era. The ICT ministry which should have been at the forefront; enabling the country to fight the pandemic and ensure continuation of economic and educational activities via digital platforms has not taken a central role as would have been expected.
The measures implemented to fight COVID-19 have raised the need for digital technologies in Zimbabwe at a scale never experienced before. It has accelerated the need for Zimbabwe to adapt to the realities of the changes made urgent by the pandemic. It has reminded stakeholders of the importance of investment in internet access, e-government, e-learning, e-justice, e-trade, and e-health among others to create effectiveness and efficiency.
What could have been?
The ICT ministry, in co-ordination with other strategic ministries should have been putting measures in place to ensure the availability of networks and services, to allow Zimbabweans to stay connected in these unprecedented times. It is not by accident that countries that have made progress in the ICT sector, which led to the wide spread availability of broadband infrastructure, are reaping the benefit in fighting COVID-19.
The government should have been putting measures to widen access to ICT to facilitate business and education continuity in this COVID-19 era. Engagement with telecom companies should have seen countrywide coverage including in remote areas and improvements in internet speed for home packages at no extra cost to users. High-speed internet access is a public resource that is an important feature of any modern society.
Zimbabwe should have seen promotional packages to enable people to work and learn from home, rather than see the prices of data bundles go up instead. A drive should have been seen encouraging providers to offer subsidised data bundles to facilitate remote work and citizens’ access to information via the internet. This would also boost the economy with continuity of retail industries for example via online shopping. Most important of all in the current environment, Zimbabweans need to have access to credible real-time information to prepare and pre-empt their actions against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the digital divide in Zimbabwe is exacerbated mainly by high data prices and costly smart devices which make essential communication services unaffordable for most Zimbabweans.
The application of digital solutions in health for tracking and tracing the pandemic, data gathering and analysis has become vital. It is encouraging that the Harare Institute of Technology (HIT) developed a Covid-19 Alert Reporting Management System (CAMS) to manage the recording of data. Cassava Health Tech also launched the Maisha Medik digital health platform to enhance Zimbabwe’s healthcare delivery sector. However, whereas other governments have made these essential tools central and crucial for determining the easing of lockdowns, the Zimbabwean government has not leveraged on these developments; which is disappointing.
The use of artificial intelligence has helped to combat the pandemic in developed countries in diagnosis, treatment and drug discovery. Countries such as Singapore and South Korea are reaping the benefits of investment in ICT, with the lowest number of COVID-19 related deaths and cases recorded. Use of technology has also enabled these countries to quickly return to normal by easing lockdown restrictions.
The power of digital and innovative technologies has also enabled other countries to continue doing business, utilising online trading, banking and retailing among other activities.
The impact of COVID-19 is going to place the global healthcare industry in the digital revolution. Infrastructure and technology is required to enable health institutions to create digital records, prescriptions and online diagnosis to allow reallocation of resources and reach out to remote areas. Most importantly, the test and track technology would be used to facilitate the easing of lockdown measures.
The digitalisation of Zimbabwe’s healthcare system could be a significant long-term benefit way past the COVID-19 pandemic. Integration of innovative digital solutions that develop online healthcare delivery models would enable public health systems to deal and be prepared for future pandemics.
On the financial and banking sector, the pandemic has fast-forwarded the need for adopting a cash-less society. The government should be encouraging mobile money use for local transactions and payment for goods and services. Measures should be put in place for mobile network operators to increase increased daily limits to reasonable and realistic amounts which reflect the economy, and waive fees on nominal transfers via mobile money.
The COVID-19 era has instead seen mixed messages from the government as more cash was introduced and electronic accounts were converted to cash ones; and most recently confused and mixed messages regarding usage of mobile money were disseminated to the public.
The eLearning disaster
A digital revolution has never been required as much in the education sector. Apart from a few individual companies such as Cassava Smartech, who have offered a Digital Classroom platform free for a month, and Dzidzo Inhaka who have developed a platform for e-learning for infants, for example, there has been no sustained effort from the government in this direction. Even though the government announced that it had made a breakthrough in its negotiations with mobile network operators who had agreed to provide free access to online learning platforms for university students; albeit three months (too late?) after lockdown. But as one reader remarked; even though this is a step in the direction it falls short from addressing the fundamental issues regarding access and the digital divide; and extending the same platforms to high and primary school students:
We talk about e-learning as if everyone is well equipped with the resources. How does one in outlying Malipati in Chiredzi where there is no electricity, let alone network coverage benefit from e-learning? It’s not fair to always be elitist in our thinking and create the impression that problems have been solved. Lest the Minister has forgotten, 60% if not 70% of tertiary students come from very poor backgrounds and go rural during their semester breaks.(Username: Masaisai’s comment)
To address some of the digital divide concerns, Zimbabwe needs to leverage on the use traditional communication platforms such as private and community radio and television for diverse educator and learner needs. Even though steps have been made in this direction (radio lessons), lack of a well-structured, planned and co-ordinated approach has seen this initiative die a still-birth. The government should be engaging various stakeholders such as private sector, teachers’ unions, school management committees, parents’ associations and civil society as well as ICT companies, among others to ensure teaching and learning platforms and tools/applications are in place and operational with verified content and learning schedules.
COVID-19 has shown that Zimbabwe’s education sector is not adequately prepared to embrace e-learning when called upon in these abnormal circumstances, with some actions being implemented being reactionary, hurried and coming too late into the pandemic. The government should take lessons from this and put in place robust education response plans for disasters and emergencies, and commit resources to the plans, for learning to continue without disruption. It should be negotiating with mobile telecommunication providers to allow educators and learners to access distance/online learning platforms at all education levels; at all times. These companies should provide resources for free or at subsidised reduced rates as a combined community effort and a payback to the public by these providers in this war-like time.
The novel Coronavirus has brought to the fore the requirement for investment in virtual learning as part of regular teaching and learning. Capacity building in the form of adequate training of teachers in distance/online education and assessment is important to ensure that the workforce is equipped enough to support the use of educational technology in the management of learning institutions and the delivery of content.
Alongside strengthening and developing online learning, Zimbabwe needs to put in place enabling legal and regulatory frameworks relating to cybersecurity, personal data protection and privacy encompassing the lessons learnt during the pandemic. The enactment of The Cyber Crime, Security and Data Protection Bill was long overdue, but this should now be reviewed considering lessons learnt from the COVID-19 environment.
There is need for adequate ICT infrastructure roll-outs that address the growing digital inequality, public policies and regulation that encourages an enabling competitive environment, which facilitates lower mobile data and smart device prices, and the delivery of affordable high-speed internet access throughout the country. Lessons learned from the impacts of COVID-19 should be a much-needed wakeup call to spur inclusive and equitable digital transformation of the economy.
Zimbabwe has embraced the promise of the digital economy, for it is now understood that it is not a choice, but an imperative, if Zimbabwe is to realize its full development potential. Once this pandemic is over, the world economy will largely be driven by the digital technology and Zimbabwe needs to be ready. It is however crucial for the transformation to have the basics in place such as ensuring the availability of enabling ICT infrastructure, ICT users have access to consistent electricity, and teachers and users are equipped with basic technological training.
Dr Samuel Chindaro holds a PhD in Electronics (University of Kent), MSc in Electronics and Information Technology (University of Birmingham) and a B.Eng. Hons in Electronic Engineering (NUST). He is also a Chartered Engineer (Institution of Engineering and Technology). He can be contacted on S.Chindaro@gmail.com