Coronavirus: It is dangerous to block citizen’s access in COVID-19 pandemic

Paradigm Initiative has urged the government of Ghana and Nigeria not to block the telephone lines or access of citizens to emergency services at this critical time. A statement released by Ghana’s Ministry of Communications alleged that over 99% of calls made to the emergency line provided for COVID-19 response were prank calls and that the government will henceforth block prank callers.

Unfortunately, the Nigerian government may be considering the same measures and more, having alleged that it is facing similar challenges. In a time as this, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Telecommunication companies (Telcos) have a huge responsibility to make their services available to aid information flow from and to the authorities, especially as there is a natural tendency for citizens to panic and seek answers to many questions they will have.

The worst response to imagine in the middle of this global pandemic, however, is denying access to users as a measure against irrelevant calls to COVID-19 emergency call centres. At this critical time, access might just be the thin line between life and death for many citizens. The government should expand its capacity to receive multiple calls and come up with innovative strategies instead of clamping down on citizens.

This is not the best of times and it is not just important that rights are respected, but the government must not introduce measures that complicate an already complicated situation. Nigeria and Ghana like many other countries in the world have acknowledged the challenges with the capacity to test broadly. 

Therefore, if the two countries must compare notes, it should be about increasing the capacity to test, isolate and treat confirmed cases, encourage social distancing, introduce welfare measures and ensure citizens are protected. It is statistically impossible that 99% of calls to the emergency line are prank calls as alleged by Ghana’s Ministry of Communication. It is very easy to infer that panic calls, curious calls and calls from those who may not be symptomatic but have genuine fears are being categorized as prank calls.

A prank call by definition is made to make a joke or play a trick. We do not agree with Ghana’s Ministry of Education that up to 99% of callers to the emergency centres are doing so just to play a trick or make a joke and even if it is so, it is a reflection of the panic and fear that makes people want to know if the number that is supposed to save their lives is working.

It is important not to use the excuse of fake news around COVID-19 to clamp down on loud dissenting voices as that will be a major mistake at a time when we all need to work together on combatting misinformation, including encouraging those working to get life-saving information to citizens who need them. We endorse interventions and support being offered by the private sector and volunteers to ensure that the government is not overwhelmed.

We, however, strongly advise the government to avoid emotional reactions that may deny citizens, access to health care and essential services at a time when movements are being restricted. We also call on citizens not to panic, but follow the guidelines provided by the official Disease Control institutions in their respective countries and the World Health Organisation as we all seek to protect ourselves and our loved ones from being victims in this trying time.