Since December 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has commanded the world’s attention and the international community, civil society, and governments have collaborated on information dissemination campaigns to mitigate its impact. Past public health emergencies have taught us that a lack of health information and the distribution of misinformation have deleterious effects in achieving prevention, detection, and treatment goals.
Ultimately, access to timely and accurate information is necessary to provide the public with the understanding needed to support collective health efforts to reduce transmission. This protects public and local health systems. However, state-sanctioned internet restrictions, such as those in place now in India Administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), as well as in Myanmar and Bangladesh, are preventing people from accessing vital health information.
Since August 05, 2019, when the Indian government stripped the region of statehood and political autonomy by revoking Article 370 of the Constitution, J&K—population 8 million—has been under consistent lockdown with restricted communications. Although the Supreme Court of India has affirmed that “freedom of internet access is a fundamental right,” the J&K administration refuses to allow internet operations at full 4G capacity.
As a result, healthcare professionals in J&K are fighting COVID-19 without a full library of resources. Iqbal Saleem, a professor of surgery, wrote, “this is so frustrating. Trying to download the guidelines for intensive care management…24 MBs and one hour. Still not able to do so.” The low-speed 2G internet stops health workers in the region from accessing current information, public health guidelines, and research on the coronavirus, as well as accurate updates on transmission in the region.
Telemedicine and online video consultations are not possible which further jeopardizes patient care and additionally limits the capacity of the region’s already understaffed and weak healthcare system. A 2018 audit of healthcare facilities in J&K found a doctor-patient ratio of one doctor for every 3,866 people, far below the World Health Organization recommended minimum of 1:1000. The audit also reported that the infrastructure was “barely sufficient” to handle the patient flows¾and that was pre-pandemic.
In the absence of reliable internet connectivity, information about closures, shutdowns, and COVID-19-related restrictions has been conveyed via print newspapers, radio, and limited SMS or messaging capabilities. Campaigns designed for social media or video communication are simply inaccessible to download. As a result, the lack of available, rapid, and reliable information creates a space for misinformation, such as fake UNICEF memos, to spread.
Intersecting rights: health and information
Throughout this pandemic, scholars and experts have urged for human rights approaches to be at the center of COVID-19 public health responses. Interventions must uphold all rights, including the right to information, that intersect with the full enjoyment of the right to health as guaranteed under Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and further protected in the Indian Constitution. As it relates to health information, the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has emphasized that states must guarantee that “education and access to information concerning [main health problems]…including methods of preventing and controlling them” are provided. Restoring internet access, and at full speed, in Kashmir is therefore a necessary step to fulfilling a core obligation within the legally protected right to health.
While restrictive measures, such as lockdowns, broader police powers, and surveillance, may be justified on public health grounds—these emergency powers must be kept in check. Any measure that derogates from a protected right must be deemed necessary and proportionate. Additionally, permissible restrictions on the freedom of expression or access to information on the basis of public health may not put the right itself in jeopardy. On March 19, 2020, international free speech experts stated that restricting access to the internet would not be a defensible measure during a pandemic, given that access to timely and accurate information is crucial in a health crisis. In late March, Ethiopian officials said they would restore phone and internet service to the Wollega area of Western Ethiopia amid such criticism about information restrictions during coronavirus.
Limited internet impacts rights beyond healthcare as the public adjust to life under COVID lockdowns. Internet restrictions since August 2019 have limited options for remote and virtual learning in Kashmiri, thus impacting the right to education. The ban on high-speed internet also makes it difficult for many in Kashmir to work from home and fulfil their right to employment and an adequate standard of living, adding to the economic cost of an already disruptive pandemic.
Upholding the right to information during a pandemic ensures that people know whether there are state restrictions in place, and where permissible, they can determine risks factors and take reasonable precautions while minimizing panic and anxiety. In Kashmir, people must be able to access COVID-19 information in local languages, through all media including social media, so they can help prevent the spread of the virus, or receive testing and treatment as required. However, the people of Kashmir and those in similar situations such as in Bangladesh and Myanmar are experiencing human rights failings through these state-imposed barriers to the internet.