Mobile Phone: A virtual home for citizen engagement and entertainment during an outbreak in Namibia

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■ Dr. Sadrag Panduleni Shihomeka

 

It was like a dream when people started talking about COVID-19 all over the world. Valuable and educative information was being shared via traditional media as well as on social media platforms across the globe.

Citizens were seen and heard contradicting each other as well as debating about the spread and transmission process of the virus from one individual to another. However, not all the platforms were authentic in their reporting, especially when it comes to spreading news about COVID-19.

Some individuals shared and re-shared; tweeted and retweeted posts that were false and this constituted misinformation; without them knowing, they were actually sharing information which was not true and could have been detrimental to the society.

Confusing memes, posts, posters and SMS’s have been circulated on various print and non-print media.

Governments in different countries are very much concerned about the extent to which misinformation, disinformation, mal-information and Fake News is spreading and the nature of confusion and trauma that it is likely to cause. Namibia is not an exception from this. There have been a lot of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and some claim it is a man-made virus aimed at destroying the black community. Some misleading news also was circulated claiming that COVID-19 was made in China and is being used as a weapon of mass destruction as China is revenging on their weakening relationship with America.

However, health officials claimed that these allegations are not true and as citizens we just need to remain calm and adhere to the health regulations and measures in place. Key among them is social distancing, hand washing, sanitizing of your hands, the lockdown of some countries and restrictions on travel amongst other measures.

The President of the Republic of Namibia, Dr, Hage G, Geingob, declared a state of emergency for six months in March 2020. Furthermore, he started with the country’s lock down of two regions i.e. Khomas and Erongo Regions and citizens movements were restricted.

The country is now on stage 2 of the lockdown and the restrictions between in-country’s regions is now relaxed and most of the businesses are now operating normally, provided that they are adhering to the health regulations in place.

The main aim is to contain the spread of this virus in Namibia, which seems to be working well for us as we only have few active cases now.

During the lock down, some people, especially in the two major cities, remained in their houses with no or limited physical interactions with their colleagues, friends or relatives. This is because some of their relatives travelled out of the locked regions.

Boredom is one of the resultant outcomes of the lock down. The only medium that served as a unifier and allowed engagement to take place is a mobile phone. Though, some citizens have Televisions and radio in their houses, many got attached to their mobile phones as means of communication with their colleagues, relatives, friends and other acquaintances.

Despite poor network connectivity, radio and television frequencies in some regions in Namibia, citizens used mobile phones to read, send, discuss, advise, update and mobilise each other about the COVID19 outbreak and its consequences. It is through mobile devices that citizens were exchanging videos, audios, text messages and images/pictures, which in turn served as entertainment and engagement platforms. Additionally, through mobile phones citizens shared jokes and other life stories by even updating themselves on what they were currently doing and how they were coping with the lock down.

In essence, mobile phones served as homes away from home for most citizens. For those that are employed most of them were using their mobiles to check their emails from work; attending online meetings via different virtual platforms such as ZOOM; submitting reports and other weekly progress reports to their immediate supervisors.

Though most of the citizens used mobile phones to play games, at the end, it turned to be a digital library for them as they have learnt new skills in the process.

Business-minded individuals used these devices to advertise various products and services that they can offer to their clients. In addition, they also got an opportunity to engage their clients/customers virtually by answering questions posted to them. Mostly, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Linkedln are some of the platforms observed to be used during this time of the pandemic. They are not only used as information dissemination platforms, but sites for entertainment, community of practice, skilling and re-skilling.

Indirectly, digital literacy took place as most of the citizens had to learn how to use certain keys on their mobiles as well as how to use their mobile phones as tools to do business, maintaining a closer relationship with their relatives and creating content that can be read by the public. Security wise, these devices afforded citizens opportunity to report crimes, corrupt acts and gender based violence in their communities.

For citizens in the education sector, the device afforded them an opportunity for e-teaching and e-learning, though the digital divide and digital illiteracy affected them. In the banking sector, both clients and banks used this device for Mobile/cell phone banking purposes. All transactions ranging from sending, receiving money and purchasing of goods and services were made possible by mobile phones. Though, long ques were observed at several ATMs when the government distributed the grants, all notifications with regards to this grants until the transfer of money to citizens was done via their mobile phones. This served as a wakeup call for us that Mobile phones are slowly becoming part of our living. Moreover, political and traditional leaders also used mobile devices to inform, update, educate and sensitise citizens by sending SMSes while in return citizens are using them to access information on emails, social media pages, messenger and other platforms.

The use of mobile phones did not only bring and raise social benefits for individuals and the society at large. There are a lot of unacceptable behaviours which are not in line with our societal norms and values. To a certain extent some citizens abused their fellow citizens’ rights by bullying them, calling them different names, sharing confidential information, intimidating one another and intentionally spreading mendacious stories or information with the main reasons only known to them. These types of behaviours might be there due to the digital literacy level or competencies of our citizens as they may not know what to share and say on virtual platforms and what not to share. As a digital ethnographer, I also observed that, some citizens acted unprofessional due to the trauma that came with the pandemic. For example, staying at home with your relatives for more than two weeks and you are not used to it. Or staying alone in the house with no one to talk to.

It also led to addiction, as some citizens are now addicted to seat in front of the television, listening to radio via their mobile phones or reading emails or alternatively checking notifications and statuses on their social media pages. This might also lead to a further problems of not giving the necessary attention to their relatives or colleagues as their attention is taken up by virtual engagements. Hence, utilisation of mobile phones as a digital weapon to kill boredom and serve as an intermediary for remote working should be done with care to avoid creating more societal problems when you were thinking that you are solving a problem.

In addition, I observed that, most of the employers failed to give digital counselling to their employees before they actually embarked on the digitalisation of their services and implementation of teleworking (remote working). Not only counselling, but a full survey of the number of people in possession and able to utilise these devices as teleworking devices. A wrong hypothesis was used, that since most of the employees are university graduates and own mobiles, they will be able to use them for work purposes effectively.

The issue here is, mobile phones made our life easier and entertained during this supposedly to be a difficult time if they were not there. They provided us with digital opportunity to maintain romance, skilling, sharing, discussing and advising each other as this is part of us as Africans. Mobile phones in other words, are unifiers, equalisers, mediators and intermediaries during outbreaks such as CODIVID 19, where we are not allowed to visit each other and gather in groups. Look at the way citizens have been following church services as well as attending community meetings. I am not saying we do not have problems with connectivity, affordability, affordances, misuse, and the worsening digital divide especially in terms of better usage of mobile phones. What I am saying is that, this outbreak came at the time when we are in a position to maintain our communication regardless of the measures that governments put in place to further contain the spread of the virus.

A tough lesson learnt is that, each citizen in this country need to have access to a network whether they have smartphones or non-smartphones so that in crises like this, there will be no communication breakdowns that can easily degenerate into ugly socio-economic problems that we cannot handle. Let us use mobile phones for entertainment, engagement and virtual publics to further strengthen our discourses and empower each other. We can use them as transmission tools provided that, digital literacy, trauma and ethics are instilled in our people.

Hence, a mobile phone is like a mobile shopping mall, university, school, library, neighbour, friend, employee and employer for us!

- Dr. Sadrag Panduleni Shihomeka holds a PhD in Media and Communication with a special focus on citizen engagement, politics and Social Media from Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, Erasmus University Rotterdam. He is a Digital Ethnographer, researching on New Media Ethics and Literacy, Digital Politics, Digital Romance and Cyber Bullying/crime, e-democracy, e-teaching and learning, Digital vs offline rights and Skilling/literacy based in Namibia. In addition, he is currently a Senior Lecturer for Educational Technologies and Research methodology in the Department of Lifelong Learning and Community Education at the University of Namibia. He writes in his own capacity as a researcher. He can be reached at sshihomeka@yahoo.com.

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