What Google Search Data can Tell us About COVID-19 in Tanzania

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COVID-19 is once again a major concern for Tanzanians. In recent weeks, religious groups have spoken out about the number of priests and nuns that have been dying with COVID-19 symptoms. More recently still, rumours have swirled that Tanzanian President John Magufuli has COVID-19 himself – and may even have been flown out of the country for treatment. Tanzania’s response to Covid-19 has of course attracted increased international attention following President Magufuli’s comments dismissing Covid-19 vaccines as “dangerous”.

Despite these public pronouncements and media attention, little is known about the impact that COVID-19 has had on the country. The pandemic coincided with the suppression of freedom of speech in Tanzania which included the passing of several repressive laws which allow authorities to control who can gather and disseminate statistical information and determine what is factual or false.

In addition, some social networks have also been blocked (for instance, at the time of writing, Twitter has been blocked for 3 month since the elections in October 2020). Without the freedom of speech, the government has been able to control the narrative and the facts on COVID-19 in the country. Tanzania stopped reporting on the number of cases of COVID-19 in May, and in June 2020 President Magufuli declared “the corona disease has been eliminated [in Tanzania] thanks to God”.

Despite the repression of the digital space, there is still one rich data source which can provide a glimpse behind the “iron khanga” that has fallen on Tanzania, and that is Google Trends. This Google search data is a collation of the information that people search for on the internet and can provide a glimpse into, among other things, what has captured people’s attention, what they intend to do and how these information searches differ by geography. Using this data, provides a nuanced perspective on the state of COVID-19 in Tanzania. Importantly, this data is publicly available and unbiased – although it also has limitations that are important to note, namely that it can only provide insights into the actions of Internet users, who are likely to be wealthier and live in urban areas.

COVID-19 is a much more salient issue

As shown below, at the start of 2021, searches for the terms “COVID” and “corona” (the two most frequently used terms for the disease in Tanzania, more on this later) have increased in volume to levels not seen since July 2020, a month after the pandemic was declared over in the country.   

*Data and graphs focus on the period Jan 2020-Jan 2021

The searches related to COVID-19 are mostly for “symptoms of COVID” or its Swahili equivalent (“dalili za corona”). It is important to note, that this does not necessarily mean that COVID became more prevalent in Tanzania, but it does confirm that it was an issue that started to command increased attention among Tanzanians.

COVID-19 is a large part of online health search behavior

Earlier this year “Corona medication” (“dawa ya corona”) was also the leading search phrase for any medication in the country. The second most searched was stomach medication (“dawa ya tumbo”) which has 87% of the search volume for corona medication, followed by medication for impotence (“dawa ya nguvu za kiume”) at 71%, flu/cold medication (“dawa ya mafua”) at 67% and abortion medication (“dawa ya kutoa mimba”) at 51%.

Over the last year, COVID-19 is the third most common symptom search conducted by Tanzanians on Google, with the top 2 searches being for symptoms of pregnancy (dalili za mimba) and HIV/AIDS (dalili za ukimwi). However, search volume for COVID-19 symptoms has not been equally spread across the year. Between 8 March and 9 May 2020, more Tanzanians searched for the symptoms of COVID-19 than any other health related condition, as shown below:

*Data and graphs focus on the period Jan 2020-Jan 2021

Again, it is important to caveat these insights by saying seeking information does not necessarily mean a rise in infection rates, though it is certainly suggestive.

Terminology on the virus is still not fixed

A less serious insight is that the terminology on whether Tanzanians refer to the disease as “COVID”, “corona” or even the Swahili version “korona” in their searches is still not fixed. Using the examples of Kenya and the US below, we see that the later had a very clear point between 15 March and 21 2020, when Americans switched from referring to the disease as “corona” in their searches to “COVID”. The same occurred in Kenya between the 14 and 20 of June, but not as distinctly.

*Data and graphs focus on the period Jan 2020-Jan 2021

Tanzania, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have had such a switch yet. “Corona” was the most dominant search term used throughout the height of the pandemic last year. However, with dropping search volumes from July 2020 all three terms are being used almost equally (though “korona” doesn’t seem to be catching on). Beyond semantics, this is an interesting insight for anyone who may be developing “corona” or “COVID” communications materials.

*Data and graphs focus on the period Jan 2020-Jan 2021

However, a significant limitation to this analysis is the limited search data that is available for many parts of Tanzania, which constrains the extent to which sub-national variations can be studied using this data. The lack of official data on the prevalence of cases in Tanzania also make it impossible to tie these insights with actual rates of infection.

Despite its limitations, Google trends provides a rich data source into the vastly opaque space that is the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on Tanzania. The data can provide insights into what is capturing the attention of Tanzanians, how it is changing over time and how interest compares to alternatives, information which is almost impossible to gather given the numerous legal and practical limitations to gathering this type of information. Most significantly, this data is publicly available, aggregated, anonymous and unbiased. 

Khamis Mutwafi

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