KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From online schooling to working from home or video calls with family, the internet has helped billions of people adapt and survive during the coronavirus pandemic.
But as lockdowns ease and social-distancing rules remain, human rights experts say countries must now ensure all citizens – especially women, the elderly and rural communities – get access to affordable internet to avoid being left behind.
“This virus is going to be around for a while,” said Kanni Wignaraja, head of the UN Development Programme for Asia-Pacific.
“One of the biggest drivers of inequality today comes with who has access to technology and particularly to internet services,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “That is widening the gap and COVID has just put that right at the centre.”
More than 7 million people have been reported infected with the coronavirus globally, according to a Reuters tally.
As authorities sought to contain infection rates during the health crisis, lockdowns and strict restrictions on movement were introduced that led to more businesses, government agencies and other support groups going digital, said Wignaraja.
Queuing for hours to obtain a death certificate or social benefits could become a thing of the past, human rights and digital experts say, while shopping, education and even cultural events have gone digital amid coronavirus lockdowns.
That makes it vital for countries to look at how they can improve affordable internet access when rebuilding their economies and disbursing post-coronavirus benefits, they added.
“There is a lot of talk about defining the new normal in the post-Covid world and for me ‘new normal’ needs to include broadband access for all,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN’s internet and telecoms agency.
By the end of 2018, about half of the world was connected to the internet, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI).
This still left about 4 billion people offline, said Anju Mangal, Asia lead for the global body, which works with governments, business and civil society groups to promote affordable internet policies.
In the developed world, 87% of people are connected, compared with 47% in developing nations and 19% in the least developed countries, according to the ITU.
In addition, women are also 23% less likely than men to use internet on their mobile, with the gap widest in South Asia, it said.
“Gender gap is a major issue,” said Fiji-based Mangal, adding that having access to the internet and technology could help girls from rural communities get access to home schooling and the same benefits as others who live in urban areas.
Examples of technology projects that target women and girls included those that look to improve digital literacy, enable access to benefits and help with farming techniques to boost food security, she added.
The ITU has set a target of connecting 75% of the world’s population to fast internet via cable or wireless by 2025.
Some governments and telecom operators have taken steps to help more people go online during the coronavirus crisis.
In Bangladesh, coronavirus contact tracing apps and helplines were made free to use, while telecom firms in other developing countries have provided free calls, texts and data to both students and customers.
But to improve internet affordability and access longer-term, governments, telecom companies and mobile operators should work together, said Mangal, adding that this would avoid silos developing that can hinder such efforts.
Public consultations when developing new policies will also help tailor solutions to communities, she said.
Goals include providing smartphones, improving coverage areas and frequency of connection, increasing data allowance, ramping up download speeds and introducing laws to protect the vulnerable from cyber-crimes, said Mangal.
The ITU’s Bogdan-Martin said the coronavirus pandemic has also resulted in a “huge surge” of online criminal activity.
Cyber crimes that have increased as internet and technology access has improved include online bullying and sex abuse, hacking, revenge porn and trafficking.
“Bad actors have been exploiting fear and uncertainty,” she said in a statement last month.
Furthermore, as most internet service providers are private businesses, authorities must also ensure monopolies do not form and control prices, Wignaraja and others said.
Where internet coverage is not profitable – especially the “last mile” in remote or rural areas – states must step in to ensure they are reached, said Wignaraja.
(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Zoe Tabary. Credit also the Thomson Reuters Foundation)