The world is witnessing one of the swiftest organisational transformations in history as governments and businesses rely heavily on the internet to minimise the disruption caused by lockdowns and other sweeping measures to contain the coronavirus.
The past few weeks have seen an unprecedented adoption of digital technologies with people being asked to work from home, schools and universities taking classes online, doctors and patients turning to telemedicine and political leaders attending virtual summits.
Digital tools such as apps and smartphone data are also being used to check the spread of the virus, while tech companies, including Alibaba and Tencent in China and IBM, Google and Microsoft in the US, are deploying their high-performance computer capabilities to help researchers collaborate as they look for a cure for the disease. But, this increasing reliance on digital platforms has exposed the deep divide between the technology haves and have-nots both within countries and between countries, Torbjorn Fredriksson, the digital economy head at the United Nations Conference of Trade and Development (UNCTAD), told DW.
He cites the example of the elderly people even in the most advanced countries, who are most vulnerable to the disease but may not be digitally well-equipped to access all the real-time information being disseminated online to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. Looking across countries, it’s evident that many of the digital tools being deployed in the developed world to deal with the pandemic such as online conferencing tools, virtual classrooms and online shopping may not be easily applicable in most developing and least developed countries, which have limited access to the web, making them especially vulnerable once the crisis hits them head-on.
“Once companies, organisations and governments shift more and more to digital solutions to cope with social distancing, travel bans and other lockdown effects, they will learn to use digital technologies in new ways that they were not used to before,” Fredriksson said. “So, once the economy picks up again, we will see a more digital economy and a more digital society in countries that have been able to take advantage of the digital tools, but the countries that are not so ready to do that right now will fall further behind as a result.”
Deep digital chasm
Just one in five people use the internet in the least developed countries even as more than half of the world’s population is connected to the web, UNCTAD data shows. In the poorest countries, less than 5% of the population shops online compared to 60-80% in advanced nations. A vast majority of online shoppers in these countries choose to pay in cash upon delivery as opposed to paying digitally upfront.
“We need to start giving full attention to the digital dimension of economic resilience of countries, whether it’s dealing with a natural disaster, a health crisis or any other crisis facing them,” Fredriksson said. “As long as they lag very far behind in terms of what we call digital readiness, it’s very difficult for them to use these tools in coping with the problems.”
— The writer is a multimedia journalist with Deutsche Welle