COVID-19 Compounds Historical Disparities and Extends the Digital Divide

The novel coronavirus has, in many ways, grossly affected the lives of people. In order to protect the health of the population and possibly curb the spread of the virus, countries around the world introduced containment measures including hard lockdowns as well as social distancing measures. For those with access to the Internet it became the means to safeguarding their health and mitigating the negative consequences of lockdown. Many African governments adopted the lockdown measures instituted to contain the virus adopted in mature economies of Asia and Europe. But the low levels of digital participation have rendered lockdowns unworkable in many African countries. For the majority who are reliant on marginal informal activities to earn small amounts of cash to buy food from a market, lockdowns became the difference between survival and starvation. On the one hand, for the unemployed, who are mostly the youth fending for their survival in the informal sector, lockdowns might cut their earnings, with adversity causing destitution. Evidence shows that only a relative elite were able to move seamlessly online and digitally substitute their banking, food provision, schooling and office work or even access business and unemployment relief or safely receive their social grants. For the majority of those who own an Internet enabled device, while depending on tiny, small value data bundles, significant digital substitution such as remote work or schooling is as unfeasible as not being connected. The pandemic and lockdown and the inequitable access to digital services have had a compounding effect on existing inequalities – between those who remained employed and the unemployed, those who live in urban and rural areas and between men and women.