I have always tried to keep this column free from personal gripes and bickering. However, the last post I wrote (Meaningless mutterings about the University of Stellenbosch) drew the attention of people at the university’s Gericke library who opened up access to resources for me. I sincerely hope that they will not get into trouble. I now have full access, as a member of the public, to publicly funded resources. I should mention their names (and their utter grace, kindness and professional conduct) but I fear they may be persecuted by the institution. I feel embarrassed; I threw a tantrum, albeit with tongue deeply in cheek, and I personally gained from it. Such personal aggrandisement is bang out of order! To the friendly, generous and kind people at the Gericke library, I doff my cap. You stood up to exercise discretion and (actually) demonstrated your expressed commitment to open public access to information. I am humbled. I will not abuse the privilege.
A dear friend — the film maker Robyn Aronstam — once pointed out how, when foreign visitors came to South Africa they were amazed (and befuddled) by the fact that we do not enjoy rapid and uninterrupted access to the internet. Robyn said that the access to the internet remains a privilege in South Africa. And she is quite right.
One of the important measures of inequality in the world is precisely the disparities in access to information between rich countries of the European world, and the poorest of the poor. These disparities are not just about going online and playing video games or downloading porn; it is about access to vital information about health care or knowledge production and about epistemic rights, among other.
In June this year I travelled to South America where I was to join a research project in the Amazon region. Before I left the United States, I went online to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention website to learn about Malaria, Yellow Fever and other communicable diseases or health hazards in the Upper Mazaruni — where the borders of Venezuela, Guyana and Northern Brazil meet. Within less than an hour I knew the risks I faced, where to go and what to do about the necessary precautions. Not everyone in the world has such access — especially not the people who may well need access to information quite quickly. There is a great divide in access to the internet that prevents such rapid access to information. The World Health Organisation’s Global Outbreak and Response Network and South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Disease are open to public access — if you have a computer and access to the internet.
Access to the internet is measured in terms of the Digital Access Index (DAI). The index ranking is, usually, divided into four tiers of access: High, Upper, Medium and Lower Access Countries. South Africa is ranked 13th among the Medium Access Countries. Globally South Africa is the most connected country in Africa at 78th in a listing of 178 countries.
While HIV/Aids is a serious problem that has had much publicity, hundreds of thousands of people die ever year of communicable diseases. Many of these deaths can be prevented with the help of access to information. Among the more serious of these communicable diseases are Tuberculosis and Malaria. Consider the following statistics from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA):
- TB infection rate now exceeds 100 000 inhabitants per annum
- 1.5-million new cases of TB are recorded each year
- TB causes 600 000 deaths each year, about a quarter of all avoidable deaths;
- It is the leading cause of deaths among adolescents and adults
- Globally, TB is likely to kill 30-million people this decade
- 90% of all malaria cases occur in Africa
- About 1.8 million people die of malaria each year
- About 1.6 million children die of malaria each year
- Malaria accounts for one in five of all childhood deaths
- Globally, approximately 300 million of the world’s population suffer from malaria. This is the largest disease burden in the world
According to the IAEA both diseases are becoming more resistant to the drugs that are currently available for treatment and drug resistant strains are posing a global threat. One way to stop, and roll back the impact of communicable disease in Africa is to establish surveillance and rapid response mechanisms – in both instances, access to information becomes vital. The key to any advancement in reducing disparities in access to knowledge and information disparities is, in the first instance, access to information. For now, and for my personal research and work, I am one of the lucky ones — I have access to the internet — millions of others do not.