Ownership of mobile phones, especially smartphones, is spreading rapidly across the globe.

Yet, there are still many people in emerging economies who do not own a mobile phone, or who share one with others. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2019 mobile divides were most pronounced in Venezuela, India, and the Philippines, countries where three-in-ten adults do not own a mobile phone.

Of course, when a crisis strikes, such digital technologies can make all the difference. As Samira Sadeque points out in “COVID-19: The Digital Divide Grows Wider Amid Global Lockdown” (IPS, 12 May 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.”

Healthcare is one of the arenas where digital technologies have taken on a vital role. There is a growing need for high capacity healthcare systems and related internet-based services such as telemedicine. Unequal access to technologies, as well as issues around affordability, will exclude people and might prevent them medical treatment as well as accessing trusted online information about reducing exposure to viruses such as Covid-19.

Today, there is more and more media coverage of this global digital divide and how the experience of the Covid-19 virus ought to contribute to the creation of a more egalitarian world. Recently, in its editorial, the Financial Times (23/24 May 2020) commented:

“Some countries, such as Estonia, have long championed digital sovereignty, arguing that the ability to operate online is an essential part of modern life. Post-pandemic, this understanding should be more widely spread. But this will depend on upgrading digital infrastructure so that it serves all citizens… Governments should ensure they expand digital access to [include] those who only make limited use of basic services. That may require them to review pricing structures that currently exclude the most vulnerable, who could gain the most from access to digital resources.”

Both the digital divide and social inclusion need to be addressed by governments and by civil society organizations. The right to communicate is never more urgent than when lives and livelihoods are at stake because access to trustworthy information and news is blocked.

Marginalized and vulnerable communities, especially women in the global South, deserve preferential treatment.


Photo above: Prashanth Pinha/unsplash.com