Ramaphosa warns against spreading COVID-19 disinformation

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President Cyril Ramaphosa
President Cyril Ramaphosa

President Cyril Ramaphosa used the 8 January statement of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to urge against the spread of disinformation, or fake news as it is popularly known, about the coronavirus (COVID-19).

“We need to actively counter the spread of disinformation relating to COVID-19 and unfounded conspiracy theories about the virus, its treatment and the development of vaccines,” said Ramaphosa.

His assertions come within days of attacks on SA’s mobile infrastructure based on COVID-19 conspiracy theories linking 5G to the outbreak of the deadly virus.

Last week, the communications ministry revealed that three towers belonging to telcos Vodacom and MTN were burnt and destroyed in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). The attacks follow a voice recording reportedly made by Sifiso Mngadi, an ANC councillor at the eThekwini municipality in KZN, suggesting that people are getting COVID-19 from 5G towers.

In the recording, Mngadi is quoted saying: “As leaders of eThekwini, we need to take action against this disease. It is not COVID. We are getting this thing from 5G towers, installed during this period in preparation of the second wave."

KwaZulu-Natal is among those provinces where mobile operators have rolled out commercial 5G in recent months using the emergency spectrum assigned by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) in April last year.

The communications department has stressed that myths linking 5G networks to the outbreak of the virus have been dispelled by both the World Health Organisation as well as the national Department of Health.

“We also need to remind South Africans that spreading fake news or disinformation about COVID-19 is a punishable offence. Those involved in the destruction of infrastructure are not only breaking the law, but also violate people’s right to access information,” said minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams in the statement.

President Ramaphosa delivered the ANC’s annual 8 January statement virtually this year, as the world, and South Africa, grapple with the spread of COVID-19.

South Africa has surpassed the 1.2 million mark of confirmed COVID-19 cases, with over 33 000 people having succumbed to the virus, as of 10 January.

Outlining the priorities of the ANC for 2021, Ramaphosa said overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic is the party’s foremost and immediate priority. “The virus is ever present and it threatens the health and well-being of everyone in our country. It threatens livelihoods and undermines our efforts to rebuild the economy and create jobs.

“South Africa is in the midst of a second wave that could prove deadlier than the first, unless we all play our part to curb and defeat this virus such as physical distancing, washing or sanitising our hands, wearing face masks appropriately and adhering to other protocols.

“We will continue to strengthen our health system and sustain community health interventions such as mass screening, testing and tracing.”

Economic boost

The party’s second priority is the economic reconstruction and recovery, and chief among that is auctioning of spectrum.

The allocation of high-demand 4G spectrum has been mooted among the ways to reduce the cost of data and increase access to the Internet. For government, a spectrum auction will boost the fiscus.

“Reforms in the telecommunications sector will accelerate the roll-out of 5G, enhancing our economy’s competitiveness, lowering data costs and boosting the operation of SMMEs, co-operatives and large firms." On spectrum, the president said ICASA has promised to auction the much-needed high-demand spectrum by end of March.

Last October, the telecoms regulator opened the invitation to apply (ITA) for the licensing of International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) spectrum, also known as high-demand spectrum, and that of the wholesale open access network (WOAN).

It noted the closing date for IMT applications was 28 December 2020, while that of the WOAN is 30 March 2021. In December, the telecoms regulator announced it had received six applications for spectrum licensing in response to the ITA.

Turning to education and skills, Ramaphosa said even though the county has made strides in improving educational outcomes over the past 27 years, the education system falls short of preparing young people for the society and economy of the future.

He highlighted that the 2020 school year was severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, adding the disease will continue to pose challenges for effective schooling in the year ahead.

As a result, the pursuit of a skills revolution is required, the president stated.

This, he indicated, requires overcoming the fundamental challenge of persistent inequality in all facets of the education system. “We need to work harder to ensure that schools in townships and rural areas are better resourced, that all schools meet the basic infrastructure standards and that poor and middle-class students receive the financial support they need to access and remain in tertiary education.

“We must prioritise the upskilling of educators and school management. Curriculum reform to prepare learners for the fourth industrial revolution will be implemented.”

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