COVID-19: The Digital Divide Grows Wider Amid Global Lockdown

Marcia Julio Vilanculos, pictured here in this dated photo with her baby, was one of the participants of a digital literacy training course at Ideario innovation hub, Maputo, Mozambique a few years ago. Only 6.8 percent of all Mozambican women, with or without owning a cellphone, use the internet. Credit: Mercedes Sayagues/IPS

By Samira Sadeque
UNITED NATIONS, May 8 2020 – The digital divide has become more pronounced than ever amid the global coronavirus lockdown, but experts are concerned that in the current circumstances this divide, where over 46 percent of the world’s population remain without technology or internet access, could grow wider — particularly among women.  

“There were already deep divides in access to technologies including the internet and medical technologies, before COVID-19 began to spread,” Astra Bonini, Senior Sustainable Development Officer at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), told IPS. “The digital divide has been closing, but over 46 percent of people are still without access and among women, the rate is lower with over half of all women offline.” 

Exposing an already existing problem

The glaring lack of access to technology and the internet is only building on pre-existing inequalities between communities on matters of income, wealth, access to healthcare, electricity and clean water, living and working conditions, access to social protection and quality education, Bonini pointed out. 

How people are able to cope with the crisis depends heavily on the community they belong to, and where they stand with regards to the factors stated above. In essence, it begs the question: given social distancing is a key measure to contain the virus, and online access is the main way to stay connected, which communities have the tools to survive this pandemic? 

“With the need for high capacity healthcare systems and a nearly overnight transition to internet-based services, including remote learning and telemedicine, inequalities in access to technologies will leave people out and inhibit the options they have for getting healthcare and medical treatment, as well as for accessing distance learning and online information about reducing exposure to COVID-19,” Bonini told IPS. 

And the divide is not just being exposed when it comes to educational access. Other issues such as access to medical technologies, including ventilators and protective equipment are also “very unequal across geographies,” Bonini said.

Bonini was one of the speakers at the “Strengthening Science and Technology and Addressing Inequalities” webinar organised by UN DESA on Wednesday, May 6. Also featured were Maria Francesca Spatolisano, Shantanu Mukherjee, Deniz Susar, Marta Roig of UN DESA, as well as Fabrizio Hochschild-Drummond, the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Preparations for the Commemoration of the U.N.’s 75th Anniversary. 

The topic of discussion was how science and technology can be implemented to address the current pandemic.  

In an interview with IPS, Susar, governance and public administration officer at UN DESA, pointed out that an estimate 3.6 billion of the world’s 7.8 billion people remain offline today, with the majority of them in underdeveloped countries. 

“Connecting them to the internet is not an easy job; it is not also a task only for governments, but the private sector,” he told IPS. “Cooperation is needed.” 

Only 30 percent of low-income countries are able to provide digital training access for their students, which is a testament to the experts Bonini pointed out. 

A recent launch of the “Learning Passport” initiative brought this issue further to light. While it was launched to make classrooms accessible for students stuck at home, the platform’s creators were not able to outline how to provide access to this facility for those without digital access. 

Bonini stressed the importance of expanding household internet coverage for families and students to have access to online classes and/or online learning opportunities, as well as for them to have access to health-related information. 

“There is an urgency to expand affordable internet access and to invest in STEM education to improve digital equity efforts,” Susar added. “There are many different initiatives around the world. More needs to be done.”

Collaboration between different actors of society

Both Susar and Bonini reiterated the importance of the private sector as well as for different actors in society to come together for a solution to address this gap.

In general, policy makers can ensure everyone can have access by removing barriers,” Susar told IPS. “This can be tax incentives and or other subsidies. The private sector can do its part in the same way by providing affordable access and various options for different income groups.”

He added that partnerships between public and private entities can be effective in ensuring this, while academia and civil society can play an crucial role “in capacity building especially for vulnerable groups in acquiring digital skills”.

Bonini agreed and highlighted the importance of actions from all sectors as well. “Governments can lead the response, but the private-sector, civil society and individuals all have to be on board to make policies work,” she said.

While these relationships are being established and conversations are starting, Bonini suggested a more timely way to address this gap could be through outreach using radio, television or other means that are more likely already available in low-income households. 

We need to understand people’s needs, we need to find resources needed to achieve these needs,” said Susar. “The COVID-19 pandemic forced governments to work together with other stakeholders to provide access. We can only hope that these partnerships can continue in the post-COVID19 world.”