Opinion: the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the digital divide which is rampant in today's world

While we speak frantically of a "connected world", half of the world still does not have access to the internet. Despite the fact that internet access is considered a fundamental human right, some 3.6 billion people are still offline, according to the United Nations. We immediately think that the people who remain the least connected are living in the least developed countries, but actually digital divides exist in better connected countries too. According to FCC's 2019 Broadband Deployment Report, 21.3 million Americans still lack access to any broadband whatsoever, be it cable, DSL, fibre, or wireless.

More than ever, the Internet is badly needed today. It's a lifeline and a critical force in helping to curb the spread of Covid-19. But while the pandemic forces push governments to implement measures such as closing down schools and workplaces, the health crisis has exposed the digital divide which allows some to stay on task remotely, with others left out. 

This crisis affects everyone, for those without access to information, as well as for people living in poverty, or those locked in prisons. From Nigeria to Bangladesh, connectivity is a basic need, just like water and food. According to the World Health Organization, "people deprived of their liberty, and those living or working in enclosed environments in their close proximity, are likely to be more vulnerable to the Covid-19 disease than the general population."

In China, Egypt, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela, journalists and others have been arrested, detained or expelled for reporting on or expressing opinions about Covid-19 

It's important to design policies, share experiences and best practices that can improve Covid-19 responses. The World Wide Web Foundation has made great recommendations to get meaningful connectivity to as many people as quickly as possible, but are governments doing enough to implement policies that ensure everyone can connect to the internet, and that internet shutdowns are removed? Are companies taking all necessary measures to make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone?

While access to information is critical and important and many governments have lifted all internet shutdowns, some have broadened the restrictions on access to information online. Ethiopia has lifted a three-month long shutdown, following criticism that the restrictions would deprive millions of vital information about the coronavirus pandemic. However in Myanmar and Bangladesh, people still cannot reach lifesaving information due to government-mandated internet shutdowns, even though access to timely and accurate health related information is clearly essential to reduce the spread of the virus and save lives,

Human Rights groups have warned that the internet ban will cost lives and that it is essential to ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible service. But internet access in refugee camps in Bangladesh has been shut down since September 2019, following a directive from the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission. Over a million Rohingya refugees in refugee camps in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh  are not legally allowed to have SIM cards. While refugees are already very isolated from the world beyond the camps, internet restrictions can also complicate the medical response.

Are companies taking all necessary measures to make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone?

In India, the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation has called on the government to "make all tools including high speed internet available to doctors and patients to save lives", in the Kashmir region. However, the Indian government has ordered low 2G internet speeds.

In China, Egypt, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela, journalists and others have been arrested and detained or expelled for reporting on or expressing opinions about Covid-19 on social media. Hungary has introduced a "coronavirus" law, including a provision for sentences of up to five years in prison for spreading fake news. Reporters Without Borders has launched Tracker 19, in reference to both Covid-19 and article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The tool aims to evaluate the Covid-19 pandemic's consequences for journalism, documenting state censorship and offering recommendations on how to defend the right to information. 

The NetBlocks internet observatory have reported on strange Internet outages in Wuhan during certain nights when the Covid-19 epidemic was starting to gather steam. The Farsi version of Wikipedia was blocked for about 24 hours in Iran. The UAE, Oman and Qatar retain bans on apps that allow people to make voice and video calls such as WhatsApp, Skype, and FaceTime. In Bolivia, authorities have used Covid-19 as a justification to threaten political opponents.

Again, inequalities and injustices prompt people in power to deal with them. But while some around the world predict that Covid-19 will heal divisions and narrow inequalities, the problem seems highlighted and exacerbated by this crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has only had the ability to show these fractures. When the threat posed by coronavirus will hopefully disappear, the digital divide will still need to be closed.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ