Initially, I wanted to have this titled , “Digital Rights during the COVID-19 Pandemic” but over the months during which I procrastinated writing it, I realised not only could I not write it, but I didn’t want to. That article had to die a sudden death in the brainstorming stage, because it wouldn’t be honest. Nobody prepares you for the lack of creative drive that a pandemic wroughts within you; and I was dealing with more than the pandemic itself. I greatly empathise with anyone who has felt coerced by their circumstances and probably capitalism, to continue churning out content during this time in order to keep the lights on.
This article is going to be about all the thoughts that have been running through my mind in the last couple of months. Quite an unusual piece for my blog, but unprecedented times call for a break in the matrix. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the old way is no longer sustainable. Organisations and individuals have been pushed to consider new ways to pull through in these times, and since introspection is a thing I value, I believe strongly that there’s a place for introspection, to figure out how we got here and what our collective futures look like.
I had been struggling for months, so I quit my job some time in February. By the end of March (before we better understood what havoc COVID-19 was about to wreak), I had served my notice. That process was both heartbreaking and was one of the top three (and not number three) lessons I’ve learned in my life, but there’s just something about a new beginning that is exciting. During those first few months, it seemed certain I would specifically want to continue my work in digital rights. I was keen on getting back to the humdrum of my previous life. Most probably because it felt not only safe, but incomplete. I felt that I wasn’t done contributing to the digital rights community (I still lend my time a few months in a year to work on a certain digital rights publication and I hope to continue doing so), so I’m still enthusiastically well immersed in the space. However, what better time than a pandemic to reimagine futures?
A dear friend of mine has reimagined what accessing content online will look like in these times and post COVID-19 with JijiBUZZ. JijiBuzz is a Kenyan platform inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic that aims to connect people and communities through social media. They provide crowdsourced information about live streaming events taking place online daily and information on how to help combat Covid-19 while social distancing.
I remind myself that we can both walk and chew gum (thank you Muthoni Maingi for the apt phrase), whenever I think about how the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly locked so many more people out of the online space, while still appreciating how the new ways we develop will rely more than ever on digital technologies.
Right before my last assignment came to an end, I was part of a team that conducted a digital rights workshop for the elderly (ages 50 to 75). This experience was both incredibly frustrating and unlike other training sessions I’ve conducted. I wasn’t satisfied when I left them, stay tuned for a subsequent post about that experience. This must be why I feel like I haven’t completed my contract with the digital rights realm, because deep down my philosophy that we should all be digital rights advocates, may very well always be a fundamental part of me. Additionally, quite frankly I still have much more I need to say and do, and I hope to continue to write about it, right here.
Just like many other things COVID-19 has disrupted, education has been upended in ways that nobody would have expected. Children and parents across the world are now grappling with virtual classes, since schools have been closed indefinitely and formal education systems have officially moved online. We are yet to fully realise, at what cost. Is anyone asking this question? How about parents and children who are not able to access online platforms? Internet access is still not universal and Kenyans are still inundated with access issues such as cost, infrastructure (special shout out to electricity), quality of service, literacy and devices. The work that digital rights defenders do, has become urgent and important in this new world as inequalities suddenly become even more stark. Education is an opportunity to break cycles of poverty that encumber so many of our youth, but it has been stopped suddenly and indefinitely for 24.6% of learners according to Kenya National Bureau of Standards. With only 12.2% who have been able to access online learning. What are the new ways we are re-imagining education to make it accessible for all, while taking safety measures in light of COVID-19?
Future of Work
As children struggle with this new way of learning, parents too have had to quickly respond to a change in circumstances. Without notice, they now have to take a more active role in their children’s education and minding now that schools are closed and a significant number have transitioned to remote working. I came across a Twitter poll some time back that asked what type of person employees preferred to report to: whether: partnered, partnered with children, single or single with children. This resulted in a number of interesting DM conversations about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected workplace dynamics. These conversations ranged from privileges in the workplace, to productivity levels and who is picking up the slack during these unprecedented times. Will we see a renewed cycle of hiring bias depending on personal profiles especially as it relates to being a parent and/or being partnered?
A few people I spoke to confirmed my hypothesis that yes being a parent is an actual privilege because it’s viewed as a more ‘acceptable’ reason for you to be away from work, unlike say if you had a mental health emergency that pulled you away from work. I realise now, that these thoughts deserve a space of their own in a forthcoming post, stay tuned.
It is certain that almost everyone’s productivity has somehow been compromised during these times. A good example is when we take a look at the creative industry. HEVA Fund ran an interesting survey that studied the impact of COVID-19 on the sector’s business activities and incomes and here are the results.
This makes me wonder how those who are employed are faring. How are employers responding to COVID-19? Does your employer do regular mental check ins or have they provided this facility to employees? Has your employer created flexible hours? Has there been a dialogue to revise how your organisation operates? Have you been involved in this process? Human behaviour has always interested me, probably why social research remains near and dear to me, so these are questions that run through my mind. These are important questions that I would love to delve into and seek evidence based solutions to.
Now that we are here, how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work(ing) environment?
Politics of Control
COVID-19 has destabilized our impression of control. It has been made incredibly evident that we do not have even an iota of control over things we thought we did. It’s difficult to control a person. Governments have implemented rules, curfews and lockdowns in a bid to control people and not the virus. See, these two things are different. Mechanisms to control people involve violence and ruling with an iron fist without room for dialogue. These methods lack empathy, these methods prevent seeing people and acknowledging their suffering and human dignity. Human dignity cannot be preserved if people go hungry, if people are not physically safe, if people do not have homes to go to and certainly, a virus will not be defeated if human dignity is not upheld. We cannot lose sight of the fact that, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc because it continues to remain inextricable from the human body while we continue to fight people, and not the virus.
Some Governments have found renewed energy for the case of employing surveillance technology and I find myself at a crossroads, with more questions than answers. Fundamentally, I believe the lack of uninformed consent forever taints any form of data collection from a citizenry. Knowing what we know about COVID-19 will we need to be more open about sharing data with our governments? How can we make this a more informed process? How can we make governments more accountable with this data? How can we ensure governments are capable of securing and safeguarding citizen interests in this new world of less friction in data sharing?
Now that we are spending more time in our homes, it remains evident that women face the inordinate brunt of violence in society, with cases of domestic violence being on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone who still refuses to see this or justifies it in any shape or form, is truly part of the problem. We have been saying violence is not only meted against women by strangers, but most especially by intimate partners and people who are well known to them. People who are violent towards women are not ‘unique monsters’ in society, they are regular people walking on our streets, sitting in boardrooms and could even be religious leaders. Violence is a political problem and this is why we see it spill over onto online spaces. During these past ‘pandemic months’ cyber security issues such as online harassment, non-consensual dissemination of intimate images and hacking have been on the rise. (insert citation)
We have created an environment rife with COVID-19 stigma where we are more concerned about making a livelihood than flattening the curve because truthfully, we need to eat, keep the lights on and economically survive this global health crisis. Many governments
cannot will not step in. What this effectively does is build a culture of individuality. The result: people lying about their travel history, people lying about their symptoms and in a particularly morbid twist of events, people protesting for their right not to wear masks in public and their right to break social distancing recommendations. A toxic cocktail, whose main ingredients are: the complex systems of discrimination such as racism, oligarchy, capitalism, poverty, ignorance and god knows what else that has been broken out of Pandora’s box. In summary, it’s a big ol’ mess.
Values, Ethos, Philosophy…
Oh capitalism, how you make us ache and suffer.
I have a friend who bashes capitalism at every turn, and rightly so. I mean look around us right now. It has been exposed, knickers showing! It’s not often that you see organisations whose ethos include dismantling capitalism, but any time I come across them, I have hope.
I’ve not only been thinking about the ills of capitalism and oligarchy during these months. With all this time on my hands, I’ve also taken the time to delve into the values I hold dear when it comes to relationships, one thing has stood out. It’s easy to build relationships based on things we have in common, in fact it may be the norm, but when push comes to shove do we have similar values? Are we going in the same direction? I plan to be more intentional about building relationships with people who have similar values to me in this new world. I need less friction and more purpose. I refuse to coast along in despair as a result of the ills that are rife in this world. Maybe that is why I recently took a closer ‘look’ at the Ukweli Party. I attended one of their cafes recently and honestly I was provoked by what Nduko O’matigere, their secretary general had to say. Amongst many thought provoking statements, one that stood out was that 2022 is too far to have elections and that #UhuruMustGo! I still haven’t made my submission, but this registration page remains open as one of my numerous tabs. I’m tired of pointing out the ways this country fails us and not doing anything about it, maybe this is a first step, just maybe.
Flattening the curve will need a revamp in our value systems, not only in our operations. The question is, are we courageous enough to take on this task that we have been met with?
To close this incredibly long post, I fell sick recently. No, not COVID-19. Given the times, this has now become a disclaimer we must provide but also a thing we worry about. We wonder, that sore throat, that tightness in our chest, that cough, could this be the dreaded COVID-19? It gets more complicated when you realise health insurance is tied in with employment, at least most times; and that during this period a huge number of the employed population have been sent home on unpaid leave and their contracts terminated. Falling sick meant I had to reschedule a meeting that had been in the books for over a month. I felt guilty that my body failed me at this particular time and I was anxious about sending that message in case there would be backlash, especially because it was so last minute and unexpected just the way COVID-19 sneaked up on us. The person on the other end was incredibly gracious and hoped I was doing ok and proceeded to provide alternative dates for our meeting. Surprisingly, the world did not end as my mind had led me to believe it would. This act of kindness, reinvigorated me as I continue to mend and inspired me somewhat, to put all these thoughts together. How are you showing grace and employing empathy during these times?