By Zerihun Gudeta Alemu,
March 24, 2020
The Coronavirus is spreading like wildfire becoming a pandemic in a short period. In response, several measures that have disrupted people’s lifestyles have been introduced. One good example is ‘social distancing’ which due to limited socio-economic costs and ease of application is touted effective in containing the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, results vary depending, among others, how well economic actors (e.g. businesses, households and governments) in affected countries have embraced some elements of the ‘digital revolution’. The digital revolution has allowed businesses to design ‘business continuity plans’ to keep them afloat in events like this by introducing ‘telecommuting’ (i.e. working from home and reducing business travels). Households have benefited from it; it allowed them to access digital shopping platforms that made possible online shopping including simple grocery items. And education institutions have benefited too. They, by moving to the web, have been able to replace classroom instruction by ‘online courses’. For sure, in times like this, the benefits that the digital revolution has brought to countries that have embraced it early enough to contain the spread of the virus through social distancing are many.
Unfortunately, Ethiopia has considerable ground to cover in the digital revolution space compared with its neighbors. Successful countries (including its neighbor Kenya) credit their achievements to their vibrant telecom industries. Kenya is in the process of acquiring the fifth-generation (5G) mobile internet service to deepen the benefits even further. It was only in August last year that the Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation (ETC) announced a plan to install a 4G network in the capital and selected regions. Ethiopia’s late adoption had to do, inter alia, with the political-economic thinking that dominated policymaking in the country spanning over three decades. The ETC, as a sole Internet Service Provider, was served as a cash cow to finance the government’s flagship and vital infrastructure projects. Nevertheless, this happed at the expense of its own development. This is because, undoubtedly, it could access, like many other SOEs, an only small portion of the profit it amassed from exorbitant service charges it collected to upgrade its operations to keep pace with developments in the global telecom industry.
Internet penetration is estimated at 14 percent compared with Kenya’s 90% and Africa’s average of 22 percent. Besides, it is expensive compared with its peers and is characterized by frequent blackouts, as recent experiences have demonstrated, not due to technical glitches but rather politics. One recent example is the government instigated blackout of phone and internet connections in some regions of the country perceived to be politically unstable. This is uncalled for at a time when the world is utilizing all available means at its disposal to contain the spread of the virus.
The level of telecom technology penetration is indeed low in these areas. But keeping those having access to the internet in these areas in darkness, whatever small in number they may be, could severely jeopardize the flow of pertinent lifesaving information within and outside the region. I recall, a few years ago, the government paraded model farmers on state media in a bid to demonstrate the success of government’s agricultural development program. I presume, one common factor that contributed to the success of these farmers is their ability to obtain critical agricultural information to boost production and protect their profits from unscrupulous middlemen by accessing price information on time using their mobile phones. This means that although slowly information exchange through the internet is entrenching in rural areas. I don’t see why the role of the internet in containing the spread of the virus is discounted by the same government that praised it a few years ago.
I take my hats off for the government for the recent decision it took to grant amnesty to inmates to reduce congestion in prison cells (a good example of ‘social distancing’ I alluded to earlier). It demonstrates that it chose humanity over justice. By the same token, I remain hopeful that the government would come to its senses to prioritize humanity over politics to extend the same gesture to the regions experiencing blackouts by striking some form of truce with the disgruntled forces operating in these regions.