Internet Shutdowns and the Healthcare System in Zimbabwe

By Prince Madziwa

What started as a happy family vacation at the majestic Victoria Falls ended up on a sad note.  It was in the middle of the night when my cousin sister (Yanka) started feeling sick and we could not make sense of the sudden illness that had befallen her. We quickly contacted Dr Lynks, our family physician, to alert him on Yanka’s sudden illness. As I attempted the call, I received a notice that my airtime credits had run out and no-one else had credits to spare in their phones. The only strategy left was to use the few data bundles that I had to google the symptoms she was feeling, perhaps we could get some basic answers while we waited for the ambulance to arrive. To our astonishment, and as we would find out later, the Internet had just been shut down. At first, I thought my network provider was slow, so my brother tried to search too on his mobile phone, but still there was nothing happening. The whole family was panicking not knowing what to do and proposing different unfounded theories on what might be the root cause. Half an hour later the ambulance arrived, and we arrived safe at the hospital. But who could have known that our troubles were still far from being finished?

Upon arrival at the hospital the receptionist asked for Yanka’s medical aid details since we shared the same medical aid provider and scheme, I quickly called out the medical card number. Unfortunately, this was not enough – as is the norm, the receptionist wanted to verify online if the medical aid card was valid and up to date. She tried searching the medical aid number through the online system, but to her frustration the Internet was down and there was nothing she could but to ask us to pay out cash then, later, we could claim our funds from the medical aid provider. While I was busy making payments the others in our group were trying to contact our parents on WhatsApp, but no communication was going through and everyone was now in a panic.  It was only after the attending doctor attempted to contact a specialist Gynaecologist for instructions that we learnt that the government had completely shut down the Internet, meaning no online communication or business could be conducted. Thank God the attending doctor managed to manage Yanka’s situation.

As a records and information management major student who believes in the need for a fluid flow of information, our ordeal got me thinking of how many people had likely suffered the same ordeal that we had gone through as a result of the Internet shutdown and how many of them were blessed enough to still have their relatives alive? This motivated my MSc dissertation which sought to explore the relationship that exists between health care service delivery and the internet in one of the main hospitals in Bulawayo. My findings showed that the health care delivery system in Zimbabwe was being overwhelmed by the growing population. In response, doctors have increasingly begun turning to telehealth services as a strategy to ease such pressures.

This is part of the reason why I was excited to apply for the Optima resource grant when the call for proposal came out. My interest was to upscale my study to look at how private practicing physicians and patients were being affected by the Internet Shutdown in the delivery of health care services. I believe that conducting such a study will be crucial in order to provide baseline data that can be used to sensitize the government on the broad impacts of Internet shutdown on its citizens.