“There is already much fear and apprehension about the coronavirus. Restricted access to information only adds to the panic,” a Kashmiri woman, Murcyleen Peerzada, told me. “Precautionary content, even government advisories, are inaccessible.”
Such intentional shutdowns and restrictions not only violate multiple rights, but “can be deadly during a health crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the New York-based rights group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a recent statement.
So, how “deadly” can internet restrictions be during this pandemic?
Firstly, through an information blackout, internet restrictions threaten public health by impeding access to timely and accurate information about the Covid-19 global pandemic, and best practice guidelines like shelter-in-place, social distancing and washing hands to tackle it. These limitations also mitigate people’s ability to evaluate the risk, and better prepare.
With the coronavirus, doctors and scientists are dealing with a new disease. They require updated information about medical trials and researches around the world to shape their response to the crisis. Not having an internet connection only cripples this access.
Samuel Woodhams, co-author of the report and the digital rights lead at Top10VPN, told me that although governments have been citing security issues to continue with the restrictions during the pandemic, such attempts to prevent the free flow of information online are “unnecessary, disproportionate and unlikely to reduce violence or conflict.”
“They also frequently hurt the most vulnerable, exacerbating societal tensions and inequalities,” Woodhams said. “Restricting access to the internet during these unprecedented times stifles the free flow of vital health information and citizens’ freedom of expression.”
It remains to be seen what the governments decide, but if recent history is any evidence, the concerned populations will remain confined to the digital black hole and their lives will be at risk.