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OPINION: How can the world learn from COVID-19 to bridge the digital divide?

by Nick Read | Vodafone Group
Wednesday, 16 September 2020 10:22 GMT

A student begins the first day of remote school and digital classes in Brooklyn, New York City, U.S., March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Och

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed how serious—even deadly—the so-called digital divide still is

By Nick Read, the Chief Executive Officer of Vodafone Group

This has been no easy year. But we will only compound the suffering, hardship and loss if we don’t use what we’ve learned from the pandemic to build back better.

The digital economy took center stage amid the coronavirus pandemic as millions of people turned to the Internet to work from home, collaborate via teleconference, facilitate contact tracing and receive many essential public services. Technology also allowed us simply to keep in touch with family or loved ones.

But this year also exposed how serious—even deadly—the so-called digital divide still is. Those without connectivity were denied a vital lifeline to healthcare, jobs, and financial services. Closing the digital divide for good must now be top of the agenda for government, business and the international community.

Fortunately, 2020 gave us reasons to hopeful in this regard too. To an unprecedented degree, we saw the public sector and private enterprise join together in common cause. In a few short months, governments, businesses and citizens forged new social contracts, working together to deliver vital services, medical supplies, and know-how. We showed ourselves and the world how much we can accomplish when we set our minds to it and put aside our own agendas.

We can build on those gains if we resist the temptation to fall back into old ways of doing things. The U.N. General Assembly is gathering this week with a unique opportunity to recommit to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We should view these goals not as mere lofty ambitions, but a real, attainable policy framework and vision for the world we want to build back from this pandemic. We can use the lessons of 2020 to show the way toward accomplishing things that seemed impossible before they became necessary, be that digitising education, securing universal healthcare, or providing everyone with a good internet connection.

I know first-hand that closing the digital divide requires a massive investment of both financing and political will. According to the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, $109 billion in additional investment is needed to bring decent broadband to all of sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately the financing to meet this demand has still not been committed. And although a huge sum, when we consider the economic and social costs of not going digital during lockdowns, medical crises and the global economic slowdown, it looks like a bargain.

Bringing affordable high-speed Internet to all parts of the world is not charity—it will help us all fight the next outbreak, and the global economic downturn. A study by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) found that expanding mobile broadband penetration by just 10% in Africa would equate to an increase of 2.5% in GDP per capita.

Internet for all is an investment in all of our futures. To reach scale will require global leadership, and the U.N. is uniquely suited for such an endeavor, along with our international financial institutions. The U.N. Secretary General’s new Roadmap for Digital Cooperation shows a promising focus of the U.N. leadership in this area. And the private sector must, as always, step up to the plate as partners.

Broadband for the people is only part of the story, however. During the pandemic many governments figured out new ways to provide public services virtually, or vastly expanded their capacity for doing so. To provide only one example, over the course of the pandemic, usage of our e-learning platforms surged across Africa, often by several hundred percent, backed by governments working with telecom companies to zero-rate online education resources. Digitising public services can increase both the efficiency and transparency of their delivery. We must now invest in the progress made during the pandemic to scale and make these gains permanent.

All of this requires collaboration on multiple levels: businesses and governments must continue to work together with the same sense of urgency and purpose that they have in the midst of pandemic—recognising that the chronic problems of poverty, underdevelopment and resource degradation are no less deadly than a sudden viral outbreak. Corporate social responsibility must move from lip service to a core mission for businesses. And we must find ways to adopt this spirit of cooperation across borders.

At many moments this year, we seemed to be battling two global outbreaks: one of the Covid-19 virus, and one of inward-looking nationalism that compromised our ability to deal with this crisis effectively.

As the U.N. gathers for its annual meetings, we have an opportunity consolidate what we’ve learned and what we’ve gained this year. If we get it right, we may be able to say someday that it was this terrible pandemic that taught us a new, more effective way of coming together. It’s a mission fit for the U.N.’s 75th anniversary.