An Internet Shutdown Is Keeping Coronavirus Information From Millions in Pakistan

Originally posted in Slate.com on April 1, 2020

Photo by FAROOQ NAEEM/Getty Images, courtesy of slate.com

As of Wednesday morning, there are 2,039 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pakistan. Like elsewhere in the world, authorities are attempting several measures to contain the spread of the virus, including a partial lockdown and deployment of armed forces on the streets and in public places. Because the country’s health care facilities would not be able to keep up with the outbreak, the government is asking citizens to maintain social distancing and is running awareness campaigns on social media to emphasize the need to adopt precautions. The streets that were always swarmed with crowds, no matter the time of the day, are now empty.

But those who live in the former Federally Administered Tribal Area are largely unaware of the gravity of the situation.

That’s because the internet was suspended there in June 2016 in the wake of an armed clash between security forces at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

FATA is a tribal region in northwestern Pakistan and had semi-autonomous status until May 2018, when it was merged with the neighboring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Though it is now technically part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, two things haven’t changed: It’s still popularly known as FATA, and its people still do not receive the equal treatment they are entitled to under the Constitution of Pakistan. The internet that was shut down almost four years ago has not been restored, restricting people’s access to information even as the world deals with a pandemic.

As the coronavirus spreads across the world, the internet is a primary platform to share news and communicate precautions. Governments are using it to connect with their citizens, and people are using it to access (and demand) health care services for their communities. But the reality is very different for the 3.7 million residents of FATA.

In mid-March, a journalist from the Khyber region of FATA, who wishes to remain anonymous for safety reasons, told me that most of the people in tribal regions have not heard of the term coronavirus, let alone know what it is about. “Most of the information that is being shared around the virus is online, and since the whole tribal area doesn’t have access to the internet, people are unaware,” he says, adding, “It’s not like we will not have cases of coronavirus, because I’m sure we have people roaming around the streets carrying it. They just wouldn’t know it.” As more people in Pakistan, including FATA, develop COVID-19, there will be a big chunk of the population that might not realize what is happening to their bodies and where to turn to for medical help.

When I wrote for Slate about the internet shutdown in FATA in 2017, locals told me that the unavailability of the internet had affected their lives in a way they had never imagined was possible. The situation hasn’t improved since then. The internet, both broadband and mobile based, is still unavailable for the residents, though political agents and military officials have access to it.

Farzana Ali, a journalist who originally hails from FATA and is based in Peshawar, told me that authorities will have to adopt a mass awareness campaign strategy to convince people to take the coronavirus seriously. As she points out, Pakistan hasn’t even been able to eradicate polio because of myths and taboos about vaccines.

She says, “Suspected patients of coronavirus are running away from quarantine facilities because they aren’t being educated about the severity of the situation. Those who have access to the internet elsewhere in the country are able to see what is happening around the world. What will a person with no connection with the world understand when they are not told what’s happening?”

Meanwhile, the streets and bazaars of FATA are bustling with people as if nothing has changed. Farzana says, “Social distancing is a privilege which most people of FATA can’t afford. And even if someone would attempt to impart information to them,” they might not listen, because they have to earn a living. “[T]hey work on daily wages, and if they stop going to work, their economic situation will deteriorate.” Still, she says that isn’t a reason to deny them access to basic information about the pandemic.

The anonymous journalist echoes Farzana’s comments and says, “FATA doesn’t have satellite TV, it doesn’t have electricity for more than three hours a day. People, especially women, do listen to the radio, but I’m not aware of any radio campaigns that highlight coronavirus. Something needs to be done soon.”

Hija is the Senior Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She leads digital rights and internet governance advocacy at MMfD. Tweets at @hijakamran

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