Online Information in small low income area in Kampala

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Author: Charlotte Hawkins, PhD researcher at UCL Anthropology. Charlotte is also a member of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) team.

Fieldsite: A small low-income area in central Kampala. This report is based on phone calls with 5 respondents, with whom relationships were built during a 16-month ethnography in 2018/19. The 5 respondents include two women and three men, with an average age of 49 years old.

In Uganda, recorded cases of Covid have fortunately been relatively low, as measures have been stringent since the outset. With only 55 ventilators available in the country, and a  population of 786,418[1], these measures are widely deemed appropriate. There has been a lockdown in place since 1st April, and on 14th April it was extended for a further 21 days.

The primary concern of respondents has been the lack of available food, and the threat of serious hunger and starvation in their community. Most people living there rely on daily income to feed their families, so not being able to work is a huge threat. The government have promised food handouts on 4th April, which have yet to arrive in the area.

One respondent is a VHW (Village Health Worker), so is responsible for sharing information about health in the community. Since the outbreak from China started spreading, the Ministry of Health started ‘sensitising’ people – educating them about health. He was called immediately for training, to move around and let people know in the community about key messages including to wash hands with soap and avoid touching their faces. There are now 5 stations for washing hands at the small market in the area, funded by the vendors.

Like everywhere, a lot of information has been circulating through WhatsApp groups of friends, relatives and Churches. The VHT contrasts what he receives with the official government information and does not believe everything he sees. False information has been common, such as the idea that African’s don’t get the virus, ‘it’s just for muzungos’ (white people).

One respondent recently shared a message with many people, who then asked where the information had come from. She asked the sender, who asked the previous sender and so on. Since then, she has been more careful to check the information before sharing it based on personal assessment.

The same hand to mouth approach for food also applies to accessing data and internet, so 2 respondents reported that they’re no longer on the internet, and largely they get information about coronavirus from government TV and radio broadcasts. One respondent said she’s only able to access WhatsApp every few days, as she has to wait for a friend to send her airtime. Every time she turns on the data she receives a lot of news from friends on WhatsApp about the virus. She doesn’t have the data to check it, so will judge it for herself. She was especially disturbed to see films from other countries, such as the Doctors in Italy crying and praying in the hospital; “it makes you feel sorry as a human”.

The government has also restricted gathering in Churches, so Church sermons are now being shared online via YouTube every day for those with access, with Pastors giving updates about the virus. “Everyone is looking for God”. Some Pastors have been found to be giving false information and have been arrested. There are also prayers on national TV every Wednesday and Sunday.

[1], accessed 21.04.20