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Why govt was sued over access to Covid-19 information

16 Feb, 2021
Our programme officer Nompilo Simanje talks about how access to information in the public interest is very important, particularly during a pandemic or natural disasters, as this assists citizens and the nation at large, to make informed decisions about their right to life and the right to health.

By Nompilo Simanje, Opinion, The Standard Newspaper

At the beginning of the year, Zimbabwe faced an unprecedented surge in the number of Covid-19 cases, but there was always a lingering feeling that the government was not telling the full story.

The number of cases skyrocketed, while government officials gave contradictory and sometimes conflicting information about what the true situation on the ground was.

For example, on one hand, Information ministry permanent secretary Nick Mangwana said the country was overwhelmed, while Vice-President Kembo Mohadi, on the other hand, said the country had enough beds to cater for Covid-19 patients and there was no need to panic.

However, in spite of the government’s assurances, a number of people took to social media enquiring for information on where they could get oxygen and hospital beds, which seemed to fly in the face of suggestions that the authorities had everything under control.

This necessitated the court application for further information and clarity on the country’s state of preparedness and the availability of medical personnel and equipment in line with Section 62 of the constitution that guarantees the right to access to information.

Access to information in the public interest is very important, particularly during a pandemic or natural disasters, as this assists citizens and the nation at large, to make informed decisions about their right to life and the right to health.

It is against that background that Misa Zimbabwe on January 15, 2020, filed an urgent chamber application at the High Court citing the ministers of Health and Child Care, and Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services as respondents in the matter.

It was Misa Zimbabwe’s well-considered view that the information that the government was disseminating about the Covid-19 pandemic and the public health situation was incomplete, uninformative and inadequate.

This application was informed by the realisation that there were information and knowledge gaps in Zimbabwe with regard to Covid-19-related information as the ministers were not fully documenting and communicating the situation in the country.

Access to this information was particularly key, given that on January 5, 2020, the World Health Organisation flagged that Zimbabwe had recorded the 10th highest numbers of new infections on the African continent.

This clearly highlighted the state of the public health emergency in Zimbabwe and the need for an awareness drive by the government to sensitise citizens.

In Zimbabwe, the testing of Covid-19 is being done by both private and public testing centres, yet no information is explicitly being provided on the statistics emanating from private health care providers.

For Zimbabweans to have a better understanding of the situation, the two ministries are supposed to collect, collate and disseminate comprehensive information.

They are also expected to highlight the number of tests being done at private and public centres, the results as well as the number of patients being treated at the facilities and also aggregate the results in terms of gender, age and location.

Globally, there have been reports of different variants of the Covid-19 virus, with neighbouring South Africa having identified the new strain known as 501Y.V2.

To date, there are reports that more than 4 000 variants of Covid-19 have been discovered globally.

This application was timely and critical as accurate reportage on the state of Covid-19 infections and whether such variants exist in Zimbabwe, is key to informing and shaping behavioural change among the citizens to minimise exposure and spreading of the virus.

Access to Covid-19 related information, in its authentic and comprehensive nature, is vital in promoting the right to health and the right to life in Zimbabwe.

High Court judge, Justice Mary Dube, ruled in Misa Zimbabwe’s favour, paving the way for the enjoyment of the constitutional right to access to information, which is very key especially in fighting this global pandemic.

The court ordered the ministers of Health and Child Care, and of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, to immediately start disseminating comprehensive and adequate information regarding both private and public testing, isolation and treatment of Covid-19.

In particular, they were ordered to publish and disseminate on all available platforms, in all official languages, information on the occurrence and prevalence of the Covid-19 virus strain 501Y.V2.

The court said if the strain was found to be existent in Zimbabwe, the two ministries must communicate the pathology of the Covid-19 virus strain 501Y.V2 as well as measures to be taken by the public in respect of this strain.

Furthermore, the courts ordered the two ministers to communicate Covid-19 statistics per district and to include gender desegregated data.

Meanwhile, there was speculation pertaining to immigration and cross-border travel, with some blaming this for the spike in infections, particularly during the December festive Christmas holidays.

To that end, the High Court ordered the two ministries to communicate Covid-19 statistics in relation to immigration and cross border travel and that such reports should include the number of returning residents received and their Covid-19 status.

In addition, the court ordered the government to communicate additional information listing public and private testing and treatment centres, their capacity and current status of occupation or usage.

Finally, the judge ordered the government to communicate the type and quality of medical equipment, other personnel needed and any further procurements that have been made since the commencement of the national lockdown.

Failure to provide the public comprehensive and adequate information regarding the availability and sufficiency of the resources, including equipment and medical personnel in the fight against Covid-19 during the operation of the national lockdown, would be a violation of Section 4 and 5 of the Freedom of Information Act and Section 62 of the constitution of Zimbabwe.

It is important to point out that this is not a personal matter, but an important issue that literally involves the lives of millions of people and the nation’s socio-economic wellbeing.

Were the government to ignore this matter, that would be tantamount to depriving Zimbabweans of access to critical information, and thus placing their lives at risk.

Such disregard, if at all, would, in turn, impair the dignity, repute and authority of the High Court.

The court order that was granted in favour of Misa Zimbabwe is a victory for citizens’ right to access information in Zimbabwe and the region.

Going forward, the government is also expected to provide adequate information on the Covid-19 vaccine options, their potential side effects and also the distribution strategy that will be employed.

Meanwhile, gaps still exist pertaining to the dissemination of information in Zimbabwe due to limitations in terms of mediums used and availability of content in all official languages.

Concerns relating to the genuine liberalisation of the airwaves through reasonable laws and policies and reliable and transparent processes in the licensing of community radios and privatisation of television stations are some of the issues that still need to be addressed.

Likewise, access to the media in rural and marginalised communities which also includes internet access and affordability, and completion of the digital migration, are key focus areas that can also contribute positively to enhancing citizens’ right to access to information.

This article was originally published in The Standard Newspaper on 14 February 2021. Nompilo Simanje is Misa Zimbabwe’s legal and ICT policy officer.

About MISA

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) was founded in 1992. Its work focuses on promoting, and advocating for, the unhindered enjoyment of freedom of expression, access to information and a free, independent, diverse and pluralistic media.

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