Among the myriad consequences of climate change is the threat posed by the increasing frequency of epidemics. Sub-Saharan Africa has proven especially susceptible to the new paradigm of climate-driven disease transmission, and while a global response to human-caused climate change remains tenuous and unreliable, technologies and practices must be pursued to mitigate the devastation caused by ever more frequent outbreaks. Emerging communication technologies are making increasingly effective humanitarian responses to disease outbreaks possible, most notably through the Internet of Things (or IoT). IoT allows for increased connectivity between users and devices and is accelerating the seamless integration of everyday objects, the Internet, and users. Many already make use of IoT applications when they adjust their home thermostat remotely through their smartphone, but technologists predict that with the advent of the widespread deployment of 5G networks, a host of new applications will be possible. One of the most promising applications of IoT technology will likely be in medicine, enabling a vast expansion of remote medical treatment and self-monitoring options for patients.
These technologies hold immense promise in developing nations, especially for the monitoring of epidemic outbreaks. The potential impact on healthcare access throughout the developing world could be extraordinary, paving the way for wearable medical devices, mobile doctor consultations, or even remotely-operated medical procedures. However, serious consideration must be given to the potential ramifications for individual privacy rights and their abuse. While international health organizations and African governments are poised to expand their use of these new methods of epidemic modelling and emergency response, the global community must ensure that individual privacy and political freedom are protected against the possibility of government surveillance of citizens and corporate ownership of generated data.
As of 2018, roughly forty-one percent of those living in sub-Saharan Africa have Internet access, and eighty percent own a mobile phone. The lack of access to mobile phones and the Internet limits the effectiveness of these techniques, as does the persisting reliance on 3G networks. Effective deployment of IoT technology requires 5G networks, which enable a dramatic increase in the speed of information transfer between devices. However, Chinese firms like Huawei are looking to invest heavily in the development of IoT and 5G-capable infrastructure throughout the region, which will enable widespread access to IoT devices. These would also naturally serve to aid in combatting the worst effects of a climate-driven epidemic.
Access to healthcare has been enshrined as a fundamental human right in numerous international instruments, including Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the constitution of the World Health Organization. In addition, Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) affirmed a universal right “[t]o enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.” With the exception of Botswana, Mozambique, Cape Verde, and Comoros, all Sub-Saharan African countries have ratified the ICESCR and are thereby bound by its principles. It is essential that the international community facilitate the deployment of these revolutionary technologies to ensure that Sub-Saharan Africans are able to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress,” especially in healthcare and public health. The development of the telecommunication and medical infrastructure necessary to the deployment of IoT-based medical devices, both for individual and public health, is a human rights question under international law. However, the right of access to healthcare and the benefits of scientific progress, in the context of IoT-based epidemic modelling, may conflict with the guarantee of individual privacy. The right to individual privacy as a core human right was articulated in Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) before the advent of the Internet, but was explicitly extended to an individual’s digital activities in 2013.
Concerns have been raised by human rights groups over the abuse of individual privacy in several sub-Saharan nations that have begun developing advanced surveillance systems with assistance the Chinese government. Companies like ZTE that have strong ties to the Chinese government are also making investments in 5G telecom technology throughout the region.. Human rights organizations have repeatedly condemned the Chinese government’s disregard for individual privacy, but such repressive policies and capabilities are likely to increase in sub-Saharan Africa if pre-emptive steps are not taken by the international community. Considered side-by-side, the ICESCR and ICCPR suggest that the need to ensure healthcare access for Sub-Saharan Africans must be balanced with the guarantee of an individual’s right to privacy.
The role of foreign actors like China in encouraging surveillance programs in the region requires an energetic international campaign to disincentivize similar instances of foreign complicity in the surveilling of citizens. The scientific research community has begun to recognize community ownership and decision-making in the collection and use of genetic resources, which may suggest a model for protecting data privacy while expanding access to individual and public healthcare. International stakeholders (corporate and public) would be required to engage and consult with communities in which IoT-linked health devices operate, and to invest in technical educational opportunities to encourage both technological self-sufficiency and informed democratic decision-making . The deployment of these technologies is crucial, but the empowerment of citizens must be made a priority equal to stemming the effects of famine and disease.