Once it became apparent that the coronavirus pandemic would rear its head in the Republic of Zambia, consumers sought to protect themselves through using sanitizers, gloves and face masks. They have subsequently been affected by radical increases in the pricing of these products. This has further been exacerbated by the fact that there are hand sanitizers on the market, which claim to be certified by the Zambia Bureau of Standards when this is not the case. Another way in which the Zambian public have been affected, is through the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus, which has proven to be more toxic than the pandemic itself. This article looks at ways in which Zambian regulatory bodies have sought to combat unfair price hikes, fake products and indeed fake news.
Unfair price hikes
Over the past few months, demand has grown for products such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizers. As a result, retailers have been tempted to increase prices, in order to profit from this growing demand. This was noted with great concern by the Competition and Consumer Protection Agency (CCPC).
The CCPC is a statutory body established under the Zambian Competition and Consumer Protection Act, 2010. Its role is to review the operation of markets and trading practices pursued by enterprises doing business in Zambia. On 21 March 2020, the CCPC issued a statement warning business outlets against excessive pricing of sanitary products to the detriment of customers.
In the statement, they warned that such unjustified high pricing of these essential products was a violation of the Competition and Consumer Protection Act, 2010. Raising prices on certain types of products to an unfair level, particularly during an emergency, may fall under the banner of “unfair trading practices”. The mandate of the CCPC under section 5 of the Competition and Consumer Protection Act is inter alia to investigate unfair trading practices. As such, they have encouraged and advised all consumers to report any companies that raise practices unjustifiably to the CCPC who will impose the necessary sanctions.
Another matter of concern is that manufacturers and individuals claim that their sanitizers are certified by the Zambia Bureau of Standards (ZABS). ZABS is a body established by statute and operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Commerce Trade and Industry and implements the Standards Act No. 4 of 2017. ZABS is a specialised organisation of national importance serving the country in the field of standardisation, standards formulation, quality control, quality assurance, import and export quality inspections, certification and removal of technical barriers to trade.
ZABS observed that the major problem arising from claims that these sanitisers are indeed certified, is that the public are deceived into purchasing these products, convinced that they meet a certain standard. This is owing to the fact that ZABS certified products typically undergo testing, under the ZABS laboratories before they are certified. In this case, ZABS would need to test the efficacy of these products for their effectiveness in killing microorganisms. ZABS emphasized the importance in testing these products in order to control and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Anyone who places a certification mark on their product, without authorisation from ZABS, commits an offence which attracts a fine not exceeding three hundred thousand penalty units, upon conviction.
The age of smartphones and social media has generally seen the spread of fake news – with news concerning the coronavirus being no exception to this. This is further compounded by the fact that information pertaining to coronavirus, its spread, how to prevent it and the statistics concerning those infected is constantly evolving. Some of the information in circulation has not only been false; it also has the potential to cause panic.
As a way of curbing this, the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA), has instructed the public to refrain from circulating any information pertaining to coronavirus, which might be fake, unverified or otherwise suspect. This owing to the fact that circulation of false news with the intention to cause fear is punishable under section 67(1) of the Penal Code. The aforementioned provision states that it is crime to knowing publish a false statement, rumour or report which is likely to cause fear and alarm to the public. One way of detecting fake news, is by looking at things like the source and the grammar in the articles. One could also do their own fact checking, to verify the assertions made in the article.
ZICTA has pledged to support law enforcement agencies, including the police, in tracking down those who spread false information using various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.