From kids missing classes to seniors unable to book vaccine appointments, the pandemic blew open the global digital divide

Schoolgirl doing school on mobile phone digital divide India
Kids study online through mobile phones in south Mumbai.
  • COVID-19 has widened an already troubling global gap in digital skills and access.
  • Countries in the global south and women are disproportionately affected.
  • To close the gap, governments and NGOs must work to democratize digital access and double down on education and infrastructural efforts.
  • Parisa Hashempour is a freelance journalist and International Studies lecturer living in the Netherlands.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Digitization is the hallmark of the present pandemic.

As an undergraduate lecturer in the Netherlands, I am still somewhat amazed by the ease with which our university has transported itself online. With break-out rooms, whiteboards, and the capability to broadcast to enrolled students around the world, a lot has changed since I was in my undergraduate's shoes, or, more likely now, socks and slippers.

But what of those students, teachers, and workers who have spent the pandemic in places without the same level of digital development?

In a world becoming more virtual by the day, internet access and digital knowledge are currency. But the ever-present global digital gap, exacerbated by the pandemic, is widening the wedge between marginalized communities and the world's most wealthy.

With women and those living in the global south the worst hit, it is time for our leaders to step up and work together to democratize digital access.

Understanding the digital divide

As a teenager visiting my family in Iran in the early 2000s, I reluctantly traded MSN and Bebo for emailing friends from Tehran's internet cafés. At the time, I was struck by my inability to access certain websites, the slow internet speed, clunky keyboards, and awkward outmoded monitors.

But a lot has changed since then. Between just 2019 and 2020, the number of internet users in the country increased by 5.7 million (11%). It's a number that has been rising year-over-year and nods to the wider global shift in increased internet usage. Despite this, however, much of the globe is still being dragged down by a gaping digital divide.

Five years ago, the UN declared digital access a human right. Yet in 2018, the International Telecommunication Union was obliged to call upon the international community to "redouble our collective efforts to leave no one offline," when news emerged that even then, only half of the world had internet access.

The 'digital divide' was a term originally coined to describe the digital and technological access disparities between rural and urban areas within the US. It highlights the gap between those who have easy access to modern technologies, skills, and information, and those who do not.

The effects of this in the US are far-reaching. Research released this month by the University of Houston found that those with basic digital skills, including the ability to use email, copy and paste files, and work with Excel, are more likely to be employed, even if the job they have isn't tied to those skills.

But beyond the US, the increase in global access to technologies has spread unevenly too. The digital disparity jeopardizes economies by undermining labor, services, tourism, technology and education. "Unless digital exclusion is taken seriously as part of a wider task to reduce inequality, millions of the poorest people will suffer the consequences," warns Professor Tommaso Valetti of Imperial College Business School.

Digital skills and access help individuals achieve cultural and social capital, allowing them to utilize their rights to freedom of expression. But crucially to the economies of developing nations, technological skills and access contribute to wealth creation.

We already know that women are disproportionately affected by the divide; one recent report says 300 million fewer women than men have access to a smartphone and as such, mobile internet. But COVID-19 is tearing gender digital disparities wider open still, and ripping agape new inequalities in its wake.

COVID-19 and the global digital divide

In the US, 38 million digitally illiterate members of underserved communities have been left unable to book COVID-19 vaccines online, making digital inequity in the country quite literally a case of life or death. It does not take much to imagine the difficulty of progressing vaccine rollouts in locations with even less online access, particularly as many countries are already further behind in the vaccine race.

By some estimates, 90% of the world live in countries that are lagging behind in critical digital skills, with individuals in countries like Ecuador, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, and Indonesia faring the worst off. According to a new World Economic Forum (WEF) report, when schools and workplaces locked down in March 2020, 60% of the world's adults lacked basic digital knowledge and skills, and many students lacked access to a computer. The number of students without computer access ranged from 25% of students affected in China to 45% in Mexico and 65% in Indonesia.

On average across OECD countries, there is almost one computer for educational purposes available at school for every 15-year-old student, with a computer-student ratio equal to 0.8. In Austria, Iceland, Luxembourg, Macao, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, the computer-student ratio is 1.25 or more. However, in Albania, Brazil, Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro, Morocco, Turkey, and Vietnam, there is only one computer available for every four students or less. This year, many students have not been at school at all. Shortages in work from home equipment make the situation even direr.

"A widening digital gap can worsen societal fractures and undermine prospects for an inclusive [pandemic] recovery. Progress towards digital inclusivity is threatened by growing digital dependency, rapidly accelerating automation, information suppression and manipulation, gaps in technology regulation and gaps in technology skills and capabilities," says one report.

Within this divide, a gender gap appears once again; the WEF says 70% of working women believe COVID-19 has slowed down the progression of their careers. Needless to say, in times of recession, digital skills will for many, prove the difference between returning to work and winding up jobless long-term.

It's time to democratize digital access

Expanding internet, hardware, and software availability will help resolve some of these problems. So too, will making what is online more accessible. Currently, English and Chinese make up 46% of text on the internet (English is in the lead by around 6%), but there are roughly 6500 languages in the world today.

However, the biggest obstacles to digital equity are a lack of knowledge and a lack of infrastructure. It is crucial that we tackle these issues through concentrated education and global development efforts in order to seal the gap.

United Nations special advisor to Africa, Cristina Duarte, explains: "In Africa, it's not just internet connectivity that's missing. So are other basics - including electricity, literacy, financial inclusion, and regulations. The result is that people are unable to use the digital solutions that are available." When it comes to accessing the right to digital development, this problem is not unique to the African continent. But change is possible.

As we move on from the virus, and the world slowly starts to heal, international bodies and non-governmental organizations must double down on worldwide digitizing efforts to ensure that no post-pandemic economy is left behind.

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