COVID-19 reveals digital divide

While the pandemic speeds up the transition to a digital economy, it also exposes the digital gap between countries and societies.

The global crisis brought on by the pandemic has pushed us further into a digital world, and changes in behavior are likely to have lasting effects when the economy starts to pick up.  However, while the pandemic speeds up the transition to a digital economy, it also exposes the digital gap between countries and societies.  Not everyone is ready or able to embrace a more digitized existence.  Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade, reports

A new analysis from UNCTAD that maps the changing digital landscape since the last major global calamity, the 2008/09 financial crisis, found that a digitally enabled world is working for some, but not all equally.  

Measures to contain the pandemic have seen more businesses and governments move their operations and services online to limit physical interaction to contain the spread of COVID-19.  Digital platforms are also thriving as consumers seek entertainment, shopping opportunities and new ways of connecting during the crisis.  There is a significant shift to e-commerce, benefitting small and big businesses alike.

Digitalization is allowing telemedicine, telework and online education to proliferate. It is also generating more data on the expansion of the virus and helping information exchanges for research.  Other benefits include using artificial intelligence to help find a cure 

There has been a leap in teleworking and online conferencing, amplifying the demand for online conferencing software such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, Cisco’s Webex and Zoom, the analysis says.  According to Microsoft, the number of people using its software for online collaboration climbed nearly 40% in a week.  

In China, the use of digital work applications from WeChat, Tencent and Ding took off at the end of January when lockdown measures started to take effect. 

On the other hand, there are some serious consequences of the rush to online platforms. These include mounting security and privacy concerns, according to UNCTAD.

The least developed countries (LDCs) are the most vulnerable to the human and economic consequences of the pandemic, and they also lag farthest behind in digital readiness.  Only one in five people in LDCs use the Internet, and in most developing countries, well below 5% of the population currently buy goods or services online.

Lack of Internet access at home also limits connectivity, cramping, for example, the possibilities for students to be connected if schools are closed.   Low broadband quality hampers the ability to use teleconferencing tools.  Mobile data costs also remain expensive across the developing world.

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