Bridging the connectivity gap
The biggest lesson from coronavirus21st Aug 2020
Many lessons are emerging, and will continue to emerge, from the coronavirus pandemic. These lessons are key in understanding what type of society is needed to withstand future health outbreaks, which scientists warn are inevitable.
The digital divide
When the global pandemic hit, the world was pushed further into a digital realm. As we continue to exercise caution, work remotely and socially distance, the world of work is likely to experience long-lasting change, but it looks very different depending on where you’re based.
That’s because not everyone is able to embrace a digital economy that focuses heavily on online solutions, tools and services. If the pandemic has revealed anything, it is the unmistakable inequality between the connected and the unconnected. Only now are we truly able to see how far behind some parts of the world are.
Since the pandemic began, more than a billion children across the globe have been locked out of learning. Even though many teachers and institutions run daily online classes, many of these children simply cannot take part as they do not have access to reliable and constant internet.
The digital divide is a stark indicator of the level of inequity in the world. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), just over half of the households in the world (55%), equating to 3.7 billion people, have no internet connection. As expected, the majority are in poorer countries, where the need to educate people about the risks of COVID-19 is the most urgent. Only 47% of people in developing nations are connected to the internet, which is less than half the population, and just 19% are connected in the least-developed countries.
What is surprising, though, is that even the world’s richest countries are struggling to keep everyone connected. Internet access in developed countries is far lower than you might think, with just 87% of people in the developed world connected.
In the United States, for example, more than 6% of the population (21 million people) do not have high-speed internet connection. In Australia, the figure is 13%, and in the UK it is 7%.
Africa’s race to respond
More people in Africa have mobile phones than flushing toilets but, according to the World Bank, 85% of Africans live on less than $5.50 a day. Small wonder, then, that most find themselves unable to cover basic costs for food, water and electricity, let alone buy data.
But all is not lost in this part of the world, and the virus could be a watershed moment for the continent and its ability to learn and work remotely.
In Kenya, the government has invested heavily in reliable broadband to ensure that thousands of students are able to get online and learn – something that was impossible a decade ago. In Burkina Faso, they’ve chosen to repurpose old technology so that children can stay at home and listen to lessons via radio.
In South Africa, rolling blackouts due to load shedding continue to hamper connectivity progress. Nonetheless, the government has made a commendable effort, making access to its COVID-19 website free of charge, with no data or airtime required. Local broadband provider Telkom has also done the same for educational websites and those that provide important coronavirus updates, such as the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
It’s a small step, but one that is definitely going in the right direction.
Digital gender divide
The connectivity divide is further compounded by gender inequality. According to UNESCO, there remains a significant digital gender divide – in parts of Africa, Asia and South America women are 30% to 50% less likely than men to use the internet to participate in public life.
The research also shows that, globally, women are 23% less likely than men to use mobile internet, and the gap is widest in South Asia, followed by sub-Saharan Africa.
Bridging the digital gap
Bridging the gap between the over-digitised and under-connected countries has a wealth of benefits. As we have seen from the coronavirus pandemic, a strong digital market can keep people safe, drive the economy, and scale down costs.
Investing in robust digitisation, especially in developing countries, can do wonders in levelling the playing field when it comes to gender and wealth.
Most universities, for example, have now moved to online teaching and learning, which can help students. This may be particularly helpful for women, many of whom were previously unable to afford to study full time at a university campus. It really can be as life changing as that!