Writing this on my laptop in the comfort of my living room, my challenges in this bizarre age of lockdown have nothing to do with survival, keeping a job or feeding a family. You, because you are reading this – for which I am grateful – are fairly tech savvy, have a reasonable internet connection and some spare time. Life is definitely not ideal, but the worst parts for the lucky ones among us who have not been directly affected by this terrible disease are the nuisance of confinement, too much screen time and perhaps some mild anxiety.
Technology has allowed some of us to carry on productive work, home-school and entertain children, connect with family and friends and get deliveries to our door step. It has allowed us to exercise, for cheap or free, and check out the latest videos, movies and recipes – all a few clicks away. The internet speed has kept up with all of us, the cloud infrastructure also.
Not only that, but trends in emerging and transformative tech have accelerated. 3D printers have provided bits and pieces of personal protective equipment when global markets ran out of it. Edge computing models can be used to monitor traffic flows and large gatherings to accurately convey real-time information for authorities. And the advanced adoption of technology to power computer simulations of protein folding is helping scientists combat COVID-19, by providing a 3D molecular structure of the coronavirus.
And looking forward, as governments are discussing and planning for exit strategies, it is increasingly acknowledged that the more digital an economy, the better and faster it will recover. The same goes for businesses. The more digitalised a company’s processes are, the easier it will move through this crisis and recover after. And the same goes for us. The more tech savvy you are, the less of the economic burn you’ll feel as we come out of the emergency.
So where does that leave the other half?
But 50% of the world population is not online. That is roughly 3.6 billion people. The digital divide – and the fact that income and home internet access are correlated – explains much of the inequality we observe in people’s ability to self-isolate . Poorer people are both at higher risk of getting the virus and likely to face the worst of the pandemic’s economic consequences.
Countries around the world have to deal with a fine balancing act of protecting their citizens from the virus while also trying to limit the financial hit. Developing nations have an even higher mountain to climb. Ten African states have no ventilators at all. In Uganda, there are only 55 intensive care beds for 43 million citizens, while Bangladesh has just 1,100 ICU beds for a population of more than 160 million. Transformative technology is all but a dream in many places.
And if that feels a bit too far from home, in Europe only about a half of rural households have access to high-speed broadband. Remote working, home schooling, online consultations? Not for them. And even in households with internet access, that is not automatically enough for families to make best use of online offerings. The lack of digital skills prevents whole chunks of society from benefitting from the available technology. Plus, children of essential workers often have to take extra responsibilities at home that limit their availability for online education.
In the US, even if access to technology has increased dramatically, lower-income parents put their children in front of screens for nearly twice as long each day as richer parents .
The tech sector has stepped up to the challenge. Through its Airband Initiative, combining new TV White Spaces technology with existing wireless solutions, Microsoft has demonstrated that lower cost solutions exist to deliver broadband quickly and efficiently to underserved areas . In Singapore, Visa has partnered with a local organisation to promote digital inclusion for senior citizens, who have high levels of knowledge about available apps but don’t actually use them . And in the UK, Lloyds Banking Group and the Good Things Foundation have created a funding network of 100 centres who will support learners to improve their digital and financial literacy skills. techUK has also been working with an Industry Coalition to support the Department for Education in the UK in providing vulnerable and disadvantaged young people with digital devices and online learning to support their remote education.
Yet, it’s fair to say it will take a lot more than individual corporate initiatives to close that enlarging gap as we move into the post-COVID world. It will take governments to realise that “my country first” is not a sustainable policy choice in the long term. Turning our back to the most vulnerable countries and communities in a global pandemic will not make us safer, healthier or better off.
It will also take civil society to put pressure where it’s needed. It will take the scientific community to inform on the best ways of levelling up. It will take journalists to investigate and reveal the worst impacts of this crisis. And ultimately it will take everyone, including those of us in lockdown bubbles of online yoga classes and fresh food deliveries, to recognise that we have a collective responsibility to help out in rebuilding our communities.
There will be serious impacts of this crisis way beyond the current health emergency. Only this past week, the UN is warning of severe famine threatening large parts of the world population. Severe poverty across the globe is rising, as economies slow down. And the people that kept us alive and safe through this crisis, the frontline workers, the cashiers, the delivery drivers, deserve a lot more than the Twitter thank yous. You clapped and I clapped, but the real test will be seeking long-term change when we are on the other side of this.