WI-FI hotspots potential COVID-19 super-spreaders

By Sharon Buwerimwe

Sithabile Siziba (15) says she cannot afford to buy data for her mobile phone to facilitate her studies. To overcome the high cost of data, Sithabile says she joins her friends at a WI-FI hotspot for free internet access. She says the environment at the hotspots is not safe as she is exposed to the deadly Coronavirus (COVID-19) currently wreaking havoc across the globe.

The cost of internet in the country is high forcing many young people to patronise free WI-FI hotspots

WI-FI hotspots are mainly located in the Central Business district and are highly patronised by students and out of school young people. There are no proper facilities and patrons have to use the internet crowded on the shop pavements. Sithabile says she has no option but to use the free facility.

“I cannot even afford watching a video when I am not on Wi-Fi. Mobile data is just too expensive. We do extra lessons during weekends so that we catch up. I cannot afford to miss my classes. I have no choice but to come here and browse notes and videos,” says Sithabile as she concentrates on her smart phone.

Sithabile lives in the sprawling Cowdray Park suburb, about 21 kilometres from Bulawayo city centre. She says she commutes to town for free internet access because there are no free internet hotspots in her suburb.

Sithabile says the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the educational system by shifting lessons from the traditional classroom to online platforms. However many students are struggling to make ends meet. The cost of buying a smartphone and the price of data in the country is too high.

An average smart phone costs around USD100 and data bundles cost around ZW$3360 for 25GB, an amount that is too high considering that salaries for civil servants are around ZW$20 000.

Trapped between the financial hardships of the pandemic and the technological hurdles of online learning, most pupils coming from low income families face mounting obstacles in their quests for higher education.

Another pupil, Tanaka Muchetu (16) from Mandwandwe High School said she is forced to wait for her neighbour’s WIFI for her to access internet as she cannot afford to buy data.

“My neighbours gave me their WIFI password so that I am able to do my online classes. If they are not around, they disconnect their WIFI as they are very busy people who travel a lot. I have no choice but to wait for them,” says Tanaka.

Tanaka also visits the free WIFI hotspots when her neighbours are not around.

“I wish the government would provide free data to students so as to level the learning environment. When the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed, some of us fell behind in learning because we did not have facilities for online learning. Only a few students had access to online learning. I am doing 12 subjects and I cannot afford to fail my Ordinary Level examinations,” says Tanaka.

Tanaka says the shift to online learning is widening the gap between the rich and the poor. She says many students from poor families are falling behind in learning and also at the same time expose themselves to COVID-19 by patronising WIFI free zones.

This article was written as part of the Creative Centre for Communication and Development (CCCD) project that seeks to strengthen the voices of women and girls, especially under the grim impact of the Coronavirus (COVID 19). CCCD has used the WhatsApp mobile application to train women and girls so that they express their voices on what is happening in their communities

Creative Centre for Communication and Development, Zimbabwe