That Other Virus Takes a Huge Toll

    It seems a cruel rule of nature that those who are least able to deal with problems such as disease are also those most likely to come into contact with them. While I was expecting HIV/AIDS to exact a brutal toll in Zambia, I was not prepared to be infected by an altogether different virus: the computer virus.

    It may seem trivial in comparison, and it is, but computer viruses act in similar ways to their biological namesake. They also have a significant effect on Zambia's defenseless computer infrastructure and in turn, the country's ability to develop.

    Viruses are everywhere here; it impossible not to come into contact with them. Within one week of my arrival from England, viruses had infected my computer's hard drive, my memory stick, my camera and my phone. All of these were infected via Betty's computer, which she uses at work. With no access to the Internet, our computers were unable to download the necessary software to protect our computers and therefore quickly passed them to practically all our other electrical equipment.

    As with HIV/AIDS, there is a lack of education on the damage viruses can do. People are slow to warn you that their computer carries a virus (almost as if they are ashamed), so it is hard to take simple precautions such as not plugging in a USB stick.

    Additionally, as with HIV/AIDS, a computer virus does not just impact its immediate victim. The greatest impact of computer viruses is on organisations that work to assist the poor. They are the ones who cannot afford virus protection and who regularly share files with others that also have no anti-virus software.

    The Lundazi District Council has eight computers. All but one of them are now not working, crushed under the weight of viruses. The one that has survived still has its free year of virus protection, but when that runs out it will probably not stay virus-free for long.  

    Until then, we are left with the administrative nightmare that occurs when only one computer is functioning within an organization staffed with more than 100 - an organization that is responsible with overseeing the water supply of more than 300,000 people. A small queue regularly forms outside the director's office, as his computer has now become a printing factory for all documents the council produces and is obliged to disseminate. 

    This is the end result, a cumulative impact of years of viruses, but the initial impact is equally frustrating. 

    Despite the fact that I have now spent a week's salary downloading the appropriate software, the damage has already been done. My computer now regularly crashes, and I often lose the work I have done that day. Worse still is that saved work is still vulnerable to being corrupted. Months of work can quickly be turned into a meaningless line of dots and symbols. At best this work can be redone but often there is not the time, or the original author is not around. 

    It is impossible for me to guess the cost that this has on Zambia's development efforts, but it must be considerable, even if you only counted for the time that has been lost creating meaningless documents. If you include the time that is being wasted by organizations reverting to more inefficient non-computer-based systems, then the cost rises exponentially. 

    Computers offer the ability to speed up processes and to access and share information easily. Without them processes are slow, error-prone and difficult to monitor, providing opportunities for poor performance and corruption. Viruses undermine the benefits a computer can bring. Technology skeptics - and there are many amongst senior staff here - believe computer are inefficient and ineffective, which they are when riddled with countless viruses. Investment in computers, in their eyes, is a waste of money. 

    I wonder how viruses are created. I think of angst-driven young people in the West who believe they are attacking the corporate world, or vicious ex-employees of the big software companies who are looking to bring down their previous employers. Perhaps software companies themselves are creating viruses. But among those who suffer are people who rarely go onto the Internet, people who do not wear branded footwear if they wear any footwear at all. 

    Maybe cyber geeks will have a change of heart and stop to create viruses. Perhaps software companies could make virus protection available to everyone in developing countries at reduced rates. Until something changes, many organizations won't embrace the technology that allows them to advance development.

    About the author

    • John Crockett

      John Crockett left the United Kingdom in October, 2008, with his partner Betty Alié to join a Voluntary Services Overseas program in Zambia. John will serve as fundraising and project management advisor to the Lundazi District Council for two years, while Betty will work as monitoring and evaluation officer with Thandizani, a local NGO focusing on HIV/ AIDS. John has worked in fundraising and communications for several U.K. nonprofits. Both hold master’s degrees in development economics from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where they met.