BY FIKREJESUS AMHAZION (PH.D.)
The fabrication of information is not new. However, in recent times, so-called “fake news”, misinformation, and disinformation have become increasingly important and salient issues within societies around the world. Although broad and open to several different definitions or interpretations, collectively these terms generally refer to perceived and deliberate distortions of news and information.
Beyond muddying the waters and making it difficult to distinguish between what is “real” and “fake”, they undermine public and social trust, contribute to confusion, can negatively influence the socio-political landscape, and often serve to inflame or exacerbate harmful divisions in society.
During recent months and weeks, there has been much false information and a lot of fake news about the local conditions and general situation in Eritrea. To be sure, as it has responded to the threat of COVID-19 Eritrea has faced considerable challenges. How could it have not? The entire planet has been confronted by a deadly pandemic that has few precedents in history. Massive challenges and problems have inevitably arisen for communities and countries across the globe.
However, some of the claims that have been irresponsibly, and even at times disingenuously, bandied around about Eritrea are far, far wide of the mark. Many can only be described as preposterous. Simply, the on-the-ground reality here in the country is starkly different to the claims and portrayals that have been spread.
In terms of the basics, the number of confirmed cases in the country has been kept to a minimum, and to date, there have been no deaths. This has not been due to hiding information or covering up unpleasant figures. Nor has it been a result of “not testing” or simply ignoring and dismissing the deadly serious threat. In any event, COVID-19 is not something that can just be ignored or casually dismissed.
Rather, Eritrea’s remarkably successful response and its avoidance of some of the dysfunction or tragedy seen elsewhere have been because of a combination of different factors. Beyond national demographics, specifically the population’s age structure, and travel trends, there has been great organization and high-level leadership, as well as pragmatic planning and effective implementation.
After taking several necessary precautionary steps in March, the government imposed a national lockdown which began on 2 April. All citizens were required to stay at home, except those individuals engaged in indispensable health, security, and development-related tasks.
From the outset, a clear set of guidelines was established and shared widely, while detailed and up-to-date information about safety precautions and the general situation has been made available in different local languages and disseminated through all forms of media and communication.
Systematic testing, tracing, and quarantining procedures have been ongoing for months in all parts of the country, from central, urban areas to rural towns and border regions. Importantly, substantial efforts continue to be made to ensure both the availability of and fair prices for different goods and services, while the government has regularly been distributing food and a number of other essential items to individuals and families in need.
Not to be overlooked, the vigilance, cooperation, trust, and receptiveness of the general population have been truly amazing and commendable. Countless doctors, nurses, health workers, soldiers, security forces, police authorities, youth volunteers, and others serving on the “frontlines” have also played a critical role. For several months now they have remained tirelessly dedicated to the cause, demonstrating utmost professionalism and inspirational selflessness.
Notably, illustrating high levels of social cohesion, solidarity, and trust, Eritreans from all socio-economic backgrounds and living here in the country or abroad have also enthusiastically responded during the nation’s critical time of need, generously contributing money, precious resources, and other forms of assistance. Throughout the country, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities have also been utilizing deeply-rooted traditional forms of mutual assistance and collective support to ensure that no one, particularly the elderly, single-headed households, disabled, unemployed, and other vulnerable populations, is forgotten or otherwise left behind during this difficult and uncertain period.
Ultimately, the simple truth and basic fact is that despite the great challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as its own humble financial and material resources, Eritrea’s response has been strong, coherent and pragmatic, very responsible (being in line with the WHO’s preparedness guidelines), and highly effective. It is also well to keep in mind that at the same time that it has been combating COVID-19, the country has been forced to deal with the quite serious threat of a potential locust invasion, which has been negatively affecting farms, livelihoods, and food security across the Horn of Africa. For just one simple reflection of the general success and effectiveness of Eritrea’s response actions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, one may consider its figures for cases, recoveries, deaths, tests, etc. or general overall situation alongside those for the neighboring region, continent, and other countries in the world. While it may not tell the entire story, and definitely should not be construed as an exercise in political point-scoring, it is quite enlightening and may offer important context and greater clarity.
Now, after a period of several months, the country has slowly begun to ease the nationwide lockdown. People have begun to leave their homes. As they do so, they are being strongly encouraged to don facemasks, carry hand sanitizer, and follow social distancing guidelines. Classes in some educational institutions are gradually recommencing, with strict safety measures being put into effect. This follows the earlier phased reopening of some businesses and offices, which had opened their doors while implementing a range of safety and precautionary measures. Naturally, the gradual easing of the nationwide lockdown is being undertaken with considerable caution. There is widespread understanding and broad acceptance that a return to full lockdown measures may be necessary if the national threat significantly increases.
Of course, the road ahead for the country remains challenging, with still yet many obstacles to be confronted and overcome. As the tragic situation around the world can clearly testify, COVID-19 is stubbornly defiant and unfortunately, it will not simply vanish or go away. Like a spark in a dry field, the situation can change in an instant and quickly get out of control. Thus, Eritrea must remain vigilant and cautious.
However, the country’s strong, coherent, and effective response thus far should offer real encouragement and inspire genuine confidence. Furthermore, it merits more positive recognition and credit, if not at least basic honesty, rather than the recent blatantly incorrect portrayals, dissemination of false information, and shady attempts to score political points.