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When a Disease Uncovers Digital Divides

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

It is time – deep in the global coronavirus pandemic – to realize that access to digital services is as much a need as electricity and water, argue Irene YH Ng of the National University of Singapore and Sun Sun Lim of Singapore University of Technology and Design. Educational and employment exclusions due to the digital divide, they note, have been exacerbated by the lockdowns caused by this unprecedented public-health crisis.

When a Disease Uncovers Digital Divides

Logging in from Katni, Madhya Pradesh, India: The global pandemic has revealed the necessity of digital access in all stages and aspects of life (Credit: Neeraz Chaturvedi / Shutterstock.com)

Bereft of digital devices and an internet connection to access online learning during the recent lockdown in India, Devika Balakrishnan, the 14-year-old daughter of a daily-wage laborer in the southern state of Kerala, was apparently so anxious that she took her own life. Meanwhile, in the financial capital of Mumbai, affluent parents have been fretting over their children’s excessive screen time as online classes are known to run from 8 am to 2:30 pm six days a week. 

Even as Covid-19 has highlighted gaping inequalities worldwide in healthcare, housing and working conditions, it has also drawn into sharp relief the gulf between the digital haves and have-nots. As government lockdowns were imposed on at least half of humanity, households have been confined at home to work and learn, with information and communication technology (ICT) as the main conduit.

Around the world, the educational exclusion of students with no digital access has been widely reported. Well-resourced countries worked with donors to provide needy households with devices and internet connections. In some communities, the high prevalence of students and schools without ICT meant that schools simply closed or sent students home with worksheets. Unlike their counterparts who could switch to online classes, digital have-not students became severely disadvantaged. 

A digital post-pandemic world

Observers predict that even after the pandemic recedes, telecommuting and home-based learning will become more prevalent. In such circumstances, digital access is clearly a need – not a want. We must make a definitive shift towards providing digital access as a universal public good or service, not as a private consumption good.

The idea of universal digital access is by no means far-fetched. Consider water, electricity or education. Even in the most industrialized nations, older people can recall a time when these essentials were not widely available. People drew water from village wells, lighted homes with kerosene lamps, and many went unschooled. Yet in industrialized countries today, piped water and wired electricity are taken for granted as public utilities, while public education is provided as a basic right.

Although access to water, electricity and education is uneven in less developed countries, the United Nations (UN) has made universal access to drinking water, energy services and free education part of their sustainable development goals (SDGs). Short of using the word “universal”, the UN has also called for affordable digital access for every adult as a means to achieving the SDGs.

Digital access critical to education and employment 

With the shift to digital accelerated by Covid-19, it is time for universal digital access to become a policy priority. Several Asian countries are frontrunners in digital coverage and are primed to be trailblazers in achieving universal digital access. For example, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported that in 2018, 99.5 percent of households in South Korea and 97.5 percent of households in Singapore had internet access, with 72.4 percent and 88.7 percent, respectively, having access to a computer.

On the phone in Thailand: Because mobile devices may be of limited utility for online learning and work purposes, computer ownership should be affordable and guaranteed (Credit: vichie81 / Shutterstock.com)

On the phone in Thailand: Because mobile devices may be of limited utility for online learning and work purposes, computer ownership should be affordable and guaranteed (Credit: vichie81 / Shutterstock.com)

Although this is impressively high coverage, it must be noted that these statistics report only access and not ownership, duration or quality of the access. Furthermore, the flip side of high coverage is the digital exclusion of the bottom 10-20 percent, while the rest of society leaps ahead with digital communication as the norm. The excluded tend to be elderly and low-income households. In Singapore, Covid-19 has hastened the government’s plans to help elderly and students access technology. This includes the acceleration of a universal plan for every high-school student to own a digital learning device.

Beyond formal schooling, however, the global pandemic has revealed the necessity of digital access in all stages and aspects of life. With growing adoption of new technologies worldwide, there is an intensifying shift towards upskilling workers across all levels. Such training is most efficiently delivered and accessed online. Ready access to home-based computing is therefore essential if low-income adults are to have any real chance of upgrading to higher-paying jobs. With a greater range of government services moving online in many countries, the very exercise of citizenship rights also requires digital access.

At the same time, the prevalence of ICT in industrialized and urban centers suggests that people in less-industrialized countries and rural communities will fall further behind. In a world where economic and social inequalities are already widening, digital inclusion is critical to prevent a growing intra- and inter-country digital divide.

Keys to unlocking universal digital access

Achieving universal digital access will require a three-pronged strategy. The first prong is universal internet connection by providing every home with reliable fixed broadband or wi-fi as public utilities.

The second prong is greater universal provision of computing devices through automatic and default inclusion. Many low-income households are mobile-only or mobile-first, with computers not a priority due to their higher costs. Mobile devices, however, have limited utility, especially for online learning and work purposes. Making computer ownership affordable and guaranteed can shift low-income households’ usage patterns.

Computing needs can be built into school registration and subsidies as is commonly the case for school textbooks and uniforms. They could also be included in computations of welfare pay-outs or training assistance as part of basic expense needs. Gradated levels of subsidies according to household size and income could be introduced.

The third prong is universal digital literacy through systematic public education. Some donors have been reluctant to provide computers to needy families, wary that they will fall prey to online risks such as pornography or gambling. The solution is not to deny these families a vital resource that the rest of society benefits from, but to equip them with the competencies to navigate the online world safely and productively.

The troubling question of deservingness 

Above all, poor digital literacy should not be used as justification to deny low-income families digital access. Underlying such arguments is the dicey issue of deservingness. Sceptics aver that people are poor because of individual failings, that they will take the unearned resources for granted, and make bad choices in their usage. Such perceptions unfortunately neglect the fact that poverty and inequality today have as much to do with unequal opportunities, discrimination and structural barriers as individual deficits. They forget that in general everyone makes bad choices from time to time and then hold needy individuals to greater scrutiny.

Perhaps a more relevant question is whether the super-wealthy deserve to gain to the extent that they do from society and not contribute their proportionate share. The World Inequality Report 2018 found that the top one percent of income earners in the world captures 20 percent of economic growth, while the bottom 50 percent captures only 9 percent. Since the 1980s, the share of national income going to capital has grown, while the share going to labor has decreased. One big factor for the declining labor share of national income is the rise of “superstar” companies, many of them tech-related, that have captured the vast share of profit margins of all types of companies.

These highly unequal trends make for a sobering background to the lack of digital access in low-income communities. A technology divide is at the heart of it. Digital access is a game changer and has become a need that most people take for granted and an absolute necessity for disadvantaged persons if they are to have some fair chance to catch up. It is time to explore seriously the imposition of wealth and technology taxes to fund universal digital access. The digital gaps highlighted during this pandemic will have to be addressed, or information poverty will lead to income poverty in a technology-intensive world.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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