Saturday, May 30, 2020

Botswana in COVID-19 data censorship

Botswana government’s COVID-19 public health response this week shifted from transparency to obfuscation and data masking as the country’s coronavirus cases climbed to 22.

In a curious break from its commitment to transparency in the fight against the coronavirus, Coordinator of COVID-19 Task Force Dr. Kereng Masupu disclosed this week that government had taken a decision mask the country’s COVID-19 data.

Masupu argued that government’s decision to apply masking to the country’s COVID-19 data field is to protect information that is classified as personally identifiable or sensitive personal data.

Under the new plan to control the COVID-19 message, government will start withholding information of public interest especially the demography and geographical locations of new virus cases. The new strategy will make it difficult for Batswana to gauge when the virus progresses from limited “local transmission” (in which carriers are identified and their contacts can be traced) to “community transmission” (in which it is no longer known who is carrying and transmitting the virus).

Answering questions from journalists, Masupu revealed that unlike South Africa, Botswana will not stratify its COVID-19 data, but will instead aggregate it to hide demographic variables that may compromise patients’ right to privacy.

“We are a very small society and if we stratify information some people may see through it and guess who the patients are’, he argued. He cited a recent example where the team received complaints from some Ramotswa residents about disclosing the geographic information of the Ramotswa old woman who tested positive to the virus.

Experience from other countries however suggests that Botswana’s new COVID-19 information strategy is a threat multiplier – Where official information sources are perceived as untrustworthy; this sets the climate for the viral spread of unfounded speculation.

This will not help Botswana’s fight against the pandemic, when the country is already battling a heady cocktail of COVID-19 rumours — an indistinguishable mix of unverified information, helpful information, misinformation and intentionally manipulated disinformation. 

With the virus cutting a deadly swathe across the globe, the world has been divided between the Chinese censorship model and Taiwan’s transparency model in dealing with COVID-19 information of public interest.

Taiwan, one of Asia’s most vibrant and boisterous democracies has managed to stay ahead of the virus against all odds. Only 81 miles off the coast of mainland China Taiwan was expected to have the second highest number of cases of coronavirus due to its proximity to and number of flights between China

While South Africa has followed the path of Taiwan, Botswana seems to be drifting towards the path taken by China, United States of America and India among other countries.

A number of experts have warned that censorship of COVID-19 information is a threat multiplier. Most, among them researchers from the COVID-19 Resource Centre credit Taiwan’s success in containing the virus on its public transparency.

In a comparative study – Taiwan Is Beating the Coronavirus. Can the US Do the Same , world acclaimed author of Bots: The Origin of New Species, and renowned American journalist who coined the term “ open source journalism” Andrew Leonard also came to the conclusion that the success and failure of the two countries in fighting the pandemic came down to “ public transparency”.

Leonard states in his report, “Taiwan’s commitment to transparency has also been critical. In the United States, the Trump administration ordered federal health authorities to treat high-level discussions on the coronavirus as classified material. In Taiwan, the government has gone to great lengths to keep citizens well informed on every aspect of the outbreak, including daily press conferences and an active presence on social media.”

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Sunday Standard May 24 – 30

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of May 24 - 30, 2020.