COVID-19 Op-ed

Information can Save Lives: Assessing public access to ICT in the midst of COVID-19 in Timor-Leste

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Therese Nguyen Thi Phuong
Tam
Lecturer of social science faculty, UNTL,
Timor-Leste

Throughout the world, telecommunication has long been an
essential component of human interaction and socioeconomic development. Still
in many parts of the global south, people do not have full and free access to
modes of communication and information. Timor-Leste, for example, is much
behind its neighbours within a region known for having the highest internet
penetration and some of the most advanced communications technologies. Only a
small fraction of the population has access to the internet, signifying a lot
of challenges in obtaining information throughout the country. The problem of
internet access is serious; Timor-Leste is considered to be one of the
countries with the most expensive internet. One 1MBPS in Indonesia costs
around $1.80, in Cambodia, $8.10 and in Timor-Leste, $500 (Inder, 2018).The
Covid-19 outbreak in Timor Leste has elevated this social problem to greater
heights. The first detected case was disseminated all over social media,
emails and online groups. Upon the declaration of State of Emergency in 19
March, things have changed rapidly and the population felt unprepared and
overwhelmed by the whole situation. They don’t have enough information and
communication mechanisms to cope with the new imposed rules and norms.What
one can easily observe is that people who have internet access, especially
Facebook and Whatsapp, can obtain information quickly – but only
31% of the population is active on social media (AP-IS, 2019). The
majority of the population are not well informed: they don’t know if they’re
allowed to go to other districts with their own motorbikes or cars, how many
people are allowed to sit in a car or on a motorbike, nor whether they are
allowed to continue riding bicycles. Some basic grocery stores are closed,
some private clinics don’t want to attend to patients with  fever, and
there are numerous other doubts circulating around.The gap between those who
have more and those who have less, in terms of access to vital information,
can lead to social injustices. Women and poor people who lack resources do
not have access to the internet and they don’t have time to read information.
Several women who work in stores and supermarkets can be seen not applying
strict personal protection practices to protect themselves from the virus.
They lack the information needed for them to change their own behaviors.In the
community, street vendors, small shop holders and other common people have
only heard of the rules orally, which are often unverified and
misinterpreted. Regulations were first written in Portuguese, which is not
well understood by the majority of the population, including the police
themselves. However, there are initiatives by some Facebook users who have
been translating and summarizing Portuguese news into Tetum, so that the
common person can read and understand. However, this only facilitates those
who have access to the internet.Students in schools and higher education need
to have reliable and affordable internet for their online classes. However, a
lot of complaints have been raised about the reliability, download and upload
speeds, and the price. The average internet speed in Timor-Leste is 25 slower
than other Asian countries according to estimates by the International
Telecommunication Union (Inder, 2018). On April 8, 2020 the Millennial
Youth Group made an appeal on GNMTV’s information program to the three
telecommunication companies, Timor Telecom, Telemor, and Telkomcel, to
facilitate access for university students who regularly need internet to
study and research online. So far, the telecommunication companies have not
initiated any internet packages that facilitate the population in this time
of need.Furthermore, imparting knowledge about COVID-19 requires a wide and
intense range of communications. The government should stop telecommunication
companies, such as Telkomcel, from sending advertising messages asking their
clients to pay 20 cents for information about COVID-19, which should always
be provided for free. The Government’s socialization of information about
“does” and “don’t” to prevent COVID-19 from harming the
population needs to be consistent and accurate. Lastly, any social-economic
protection policies should be socialized widely through radio, TV and other
online journals before they are implemented.The Timor Leste government must
realize that in the time of a national emergency, one’s right to full access
to information is a non-negotiable element to change their risk behaviors, to
adapt to the new demanding situation and, most importantly, to save as many
lives as possible.References

_______________________________________ Observations
of the author when doing shopping and chatting.

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