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.”

The Role of Civil Society in Times of Crisis

What is the role of civil society in this massive national exercise to ensure that every citizen of the country has food to eat, quality health services, and livelihood opportunities? I believe there is plenty we can do

This is an opportunity for civil society to highlight the plight of migrant labourers that existed even before the pandemic.. Picture courtesy: Anand Sinha

By Nikhil Dey
RAJASMAND, RAJASTHAN, India, May 8 2020 – The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown us something that most of us haven’t seen in our lifetimes: Large numbers of people unable to have two meals a day. 

The tragedy is that the government has enough and more foodgrains to feed people during this time; the real issue is of distribution—both in terms of broken supply chains, as well as the insistence of the government to limit distribution to beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), ie, priority ration card holders. This approach is flawed because the NFSA has many exclusions, with some of the poorest of the poor, nomadic or Adivasi communities, and the urban poor being left out. Moreover, ration cards are of no use to migrant workers stuck outside their home state.

How much attention we pay to the millions who have been worst affected by COVID-19 and the lockdown will determine whether or not we come out of this crisis

There are similar issues of exclusion in other services as well, such as livelihoods and healthcare. This is where civil society must step in—to put pressure on the government to universalise these services.

We, at the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and through many networks, have been petitioning the government to distribute foodgrains to everyone, and we need to apply this kind of pressure at a larger scale. We’ve seen this work in the past, in the case of programmes such as NFSA (that focuses on food security) and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)—both these were a result of consultative processes between the government and civil society. In fact, these rights-based legislations are providing us with the framework for public service delivery during this crisis, and they need to be effectively enhanced.

Therefore, if the government does not listen, we have to make them listen. I believe the people of this country know how to engage with the government—even when we disagree with our leaders, or they don’t listen to us. We live in a constitutional democracy, and the mantle therefore lies with citizens and civil society organisations to put pressure on the government, and to recreate society on the principles of equality, respect, and solidarity. In the short term, this means that we need to build a national movement to ensure that everyone gets access to food, livelihood, and healthcare.

But how can we do this, given the urgency of the situation and the restrictions that have come with it? What is our role in this massive national exercise to ensure that every citizen of the country has food to eat, quality health services, and livelihood opportunities? I believe there is plenty we can do.


Build a network of civil society

Civil society will have to build a network that cuts across the country. We will need to map the different organisations and groups providing relief in every district, block, and down to every village. We can do this because we have volunteers and workers—from field staff of nonprofits to government school teachers—all over the country, and we know whom we can contact for any information or assistance at any place.

The strength of civil society lies in knowing and being the small, decentralised units that have taken responsibility for their entire area—identifying the number of people in the area, the relief needed, the gaps in government relief, the challenges on the ground, and so on. By bringing them together and forming a network, we can enable these units to call upon each other for assistance, such as procuring material or rebuilding supply chains. Most importantly, the network can have a voice at the national-level that says everyone is entitled to benefits, even if they are not ration card holders or active workers under NREGA.


Stand in solidarity with those delivering essential services

COVID-19 is a high-risk disease, and we need to be very careful; but we cannot simply lock ourselves in our homes, because then those who are most vulnerable will not survive. Essential services absolutely have to continue. We have to build systems and mechanisms for safe delivery of services, and public servants have to be motivated, and given economic and moral support. Even though this has to be primarily done by the government, civil society organisations have a huge role to play as well.

For instance, we need to stand in solidarity with those who are currently delivering these services—frontline health workers, sanitation workers, people running ration shops and kirana stores, those making home deliveries of goods, and so on. We have to understand their problems and put pressure on the government to support them. The Delhi government recently announced insurance of INR 1 crore for frontline workers. That is the kind of security we should demand for every individual delivering services in this period. We have to build a movement around them.

These essential jobs could also be the answer to protecting the livelihoods of the poor during this time, by creating a fallback public works programme, unprecedented in scale. Civil society can demonstrate this model to the government. We need to chart the vital services required today, such as delivering rations and caregiving, and show to the government how people can be employed in these roles. This will not only help communities affected by the pandemic, but the mechanism of doing so might help others in turn.


Continue social movements in innovative ways

We might not be able to organise rallies or protests during the lockdown, but social movements must not stop finding ways to mobilise public opinion. When the lockdown first happened, we filed a case in the Supreme Court to say that all active workers under NREGA should be given wages for all 21 days. The case is being heard via video conferencing. So, we have to explore all options that help put pressure on the government.

We can engage with the state, send press notes, exchange information within our networks of civil society organisations, and document what’s happening on the ground. This way, we can raise issues at the state- and national-level. There are restrictions everywhere, but we cannot stop. We have to be innovative.

Civil society leaders and activists must also continue writing for newspapers and alternative media to highlight the situation of the most vulnerable, and do it in a more organised way, by taking the unheard voices and disseminating them using our networks. These must not just be confined to stories of suffering, but include positive stories and creative practices as well—of people working together despite socio-economic differences. Civil society can also help advocate that best practices in one state be replicated in others.

This is an opportunity for civil society to highlight the plight of migrant labourers that existed even before the pandemic—their work and living conditions, the insecurity of work, and the fact that they have no real social support from the state. We’ve heard people say that they didn’t realise that the migrant workforce is the backbone of our economy. Therefore, in addition to looking after their welfare and security, we must recognise their contribution, and build respect for them and their work—not as a favour, but as a means to empower them.

Many civil society organisations have been working with domestic workers, industrial workers, mine workers, street vendors, or other informal sector workers, but we haven’t managed to get them together and build them into the potent, powerful force that they could be. Perhaps now is the time for us to do that.

This is also an opportunity for civil society to counter the communal narrative that took over the country a few weeks ago. By taking the lead in organising multifaith relief efforts and highlighting positive stories of unity across religious lines, we have to show that the only way to overcome this crisis is by working together. We need to demonstrate compassion and care at this time, and shift the focus of politics to those values.


Work with the government

The role of civil society does not stop at putting pressure on the government. There are many areas that the government is unable to reach; we have to reach there. We have to use our transparency and accountability mechanisms to monitor the government’s work and make sure state resources are well-used. We also need to proactively find the gaps, and help fill those gaps.

The government structure is working well in some areas and not working in others. In some of those places, the government is itself asking for our help. Given the enormity of the intervention required, the government cannot do it on its own, and civil society cannot replace the vast role of the government in facing this crisis. While civil society organisations can take responsibility for one area and fully ensure the well-being of the people there, we must also work with local governments, help people access relief measures down to every rural and urban ward, and fill the gaps in the government’s response. Panchayats and local self-governments also have a very big role to play in this effort.

Apart from this, each one of us needs to think hard of the ways in which we can contribute. As individuals, we can immediately start looking at those around us—in our villages and our localities. Some of us can provide economic resources to plug the government’s gaps; others can take up the job of distribution. Individuals can also devote their time and join campaigns. There needs to be a concerted campaign for instance, to use the excessive foodgrain stocks to universalise the PDS, at least for the next few months. We also need to support the demand for an enhanced employment guarantee programme for rural and urban areas. We don’t realise how powerful the middle-class, English-speaking elite in India is; if they raise their voice enough, we will see improved situations around us.

And lastly, let us not forget democracy at this time—the right to speak, the right to challenge, the right to argue—because today, the only thing millions of poor people have is a voice. We need to amplify that voice to ensure that the most vulnerable get the most support, and those who are affluent only get something if it helps the most vulnerable. How much attention we pay to the millions who have been worst affected by COVID-19 and the lockdown will determine whether or not we come out of this crisis.

The article is based on Nikhil’s online discussion with the team members of Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, Azim Premji University, and Azim Premji Foundation.

Nikhil Dey was one of the founding members of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS).


This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)