Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Hanif Lalani on How COVID-19 Exposed the Digital Divide

Less than one month after Covid-19 was officially designated as a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March of 2020, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that over half of adults in the United States (53 percent) said the internet had been “essential” for them personally during the coronavirus outbreak. Another 34 percent of those surveyed considered the internet to be “important,” meaning that even in the earliest stages of the pandemic the vast majority of Americans were aware of the critical purpose internet access served in their daily lives.

Today as we come to two years since the global Covid-19 outbreak first brought the world to a screeching halt, systems that were once thought to be temporary have since become the new normal for much of the world. While many social distancing guidelines and other such regulations have been lifted, the shifts they caused in the way we work, learn and move throughout the world have remained in place. It is clear that the internet is no longer just for consumers and entertainment – it has become a necessity for living in the modern world.

Technology has been heralded for many years as “the great equalizer,” solving a multitude of society’s problems including income inequality. Unfortunately, as the internet and its corresponding technologies such as 5G have advanced with increasing rapidity the gap appears to have only further widened, and the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the increasing global problem of the digital divide.

Access to the internet for many rural and low-income communities around the world has been nonexistent or severely limited for years, but as schools and jobs transitioned online in light of lockdowns and social distancing protocols, such limitations became even more acutely painful to those experiencing them. Suddenly, the internet was no longer a luxury that was unrealized, but a necessity that was inaccessible.

 “The digital divide has been widening for years as some places race forward leaving others in the dust,” said Hanif Lalani, a British business executive who is working in various developing countries on high-speed internet projects. “Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns and restrictions may have further broadened such divisions, but they have also brought such problems to greater public attention and hopefully instigated a drive for meaningful change.”

Lalani worked for over thirty years in the telecoms industry in the United Kingdom, is now using his experience in IT, telecoms and business process outsourcing in broadband and 5G initiatives across the globe from Central Asian as well as in the Middle East and Africa.

According to a report by the International Telecommunication Update the internet penetration rate for the developed world is 87 percent, but sits at just 47 percent in developing countries and an even lower 19 percent in the least-developed countries. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines the digital divide  as “the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities.” Basically, those who lack steady access to broadband (high-speed) internet are much more limited in their opportunities than those that do have it.

 “When essential activities moved online during Covid-19, inadequate internet service was no longer simply a barrier to a higher quality of life. For many households it became a crisis.”

Prior to the current public health crisis remote working was a small aspect of the digital divide, but the transition to telecommuting by a large number of societies around the world has made it a major factor in moderating the economic impacts of the pandemic. Those with poor access to the internet may have felt the ramifications of losing their job without having the ability to participate online. Additionally, internet accessibility contributed further to the gaps in healthcare, as those with little or no access were much more limited in receiving pertinent and real-time information about the disease and how to handle it. While for many the internet was a source of solace and support during social distancing and quarantining measures, those who went without were often unable to communicate with their loved ones or ignored the risks in order to do so.

But perhaps one of the largest societal problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the digital divide is in schooling. An estimated 1.6 billion children worldwide were unable to attend school in person due to closures by April of 2020, and according to the United Nations Children’s Fund at least 200 million children across 31 low and middle-income nations weren’t able to attend school at all because educators were unable to provide remote learning.

While developed countries such as the United States do have a better internet penetration rate overall, they are certainly not immune to their own share of the digital divide, particularly in rural areas. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that poor students are less likely to have the equipment needed to attend school online, with 7 percent of eighth-graders who are poor not having internet access compared with 1.6 percent of non-poor students. Without reliable internet, these economic inequalities will continue to grow.

Even as cases decline in much of the world, the digital divide remains. However, tackling the problem has the ability to do more than mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. According to a paper by Whitacre, Gallardo, and Strover, the availability and adoption of broadband service with higher download speed contributed to economic growth in the areas through higher median household income, lower unemployment, and positive impacts for rural businesses. Through widespread internet access –– especially in rural areas where this gap is often broadest –– home businesses can be further advanced, there can be a reduction in depopulation, and higher farm sales and profits can be realized.

“Recognising and addressing the digital divide enables me to engage with real people, understand their dreams, feelings and help them achieve their true potential in life”  

Through collaborations between governments and the private sector, there is a strong potential to see the digital divide shrink globally, addressing inequalities and creating meaningful, permanent change. The pandemic has had a devastating impact on many aspects of life, but it has also brought many issues to the forefront and served to highlight the weak points in our society globally. Covid-19 may have exposed the digital divide, but if we seize this exposure it can be used as an opportunity to transform the technological landscape of the world and ensure the gap is closed.

Connect with Hanif Lalani on TopioNetworks and his personal website(haniflalani.co.uk/).

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