As a result of COVID-19 pandemic, global businesses have been shattered; nations have been locked down while education systems have been disrupted. The world has woken up to a new reality and most government around the globe have embraced working remotely using digital technologies. In addition, this pandemic has necessitated different nations all over the world to put in place important rules on social distancing, the functioning of services, and restrictions on the movement of people. Employees are now being encouraged to work remotely from home using digital technologies in order to avoid contracting coronavirus and also to comply with social distancing rules. However, not everyone has access to digital technology. There are some people who are more privileged to access and use digital technologies than others. This technology gap has resulted to what is commonly referred to as “digital inequalities”. In most cases, digital inequalities also cut across gender, class, race, background as well as geographical areas. It is essential to note that even some countries with high levels of technology adoption still elude many economically less privileged of the population from basic access to digital resources. It is increasingly clear that COVID-19 pandemic has heighten digital inequalities in many countries but most especially in South Africa. This is because South Africa already has an history of digital inequalities dated back to apartheid, where the “non-whites”, mostly Black Africans, were provided with inferior education and no access to digital technologies. In addition, lack of telecommunications infrastructure, high costs of internet connectivity and high levels of poverty continue to deepen digital inequalities in South Africa. This is now being worsen by COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, what are the implication of digital inequalities in South Africa during COVID-19 pandemic? How can these digital inequalities be addressed?
Digital Inequalities in South Africa
In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national lock down for 21 days on March 23, 2020, in order to curb the rapid increase of COVID-19 cases in the country. During this locked down period, a vast majority of people were restricted to work/study online remotely from their homes in compliance with social distancing rules. However, Research ICT Africa’s (https://researchictafrica.net/), reports that with the high mobile data prices, expensive smart devices, internet access levels of only 50% and low-bandwidth connectivity in certain areas, social distancing containment measure is easier said than done. Only few South Africans who are privileged will be able leverage digital opportunities that ease the transition to social distancing as they have the privilege to access high speed internet and other resources.
The effect of COVID-19 pandemic according to Research ICT Africa’s (RIA’s) reveals that 50% South Africans does not have access to internet and digital technologies that would enable them to continue working and/or studying online remotely (https://researchictafrica.net/). While the ongoing effect of COVID-19 outbreak has constrained most people to work remotely from home using digital technologies, many economically disadvantaged or traditionally underrepresented group of the populace are still being excluded from basic access to digital resources as well as the skills to use them effectively. For example, higher educational institutions in South Africa have embraced the use digital technologies for online teaching and learning in order adhere to social distancing rules. However, this has hedged out some disadvantaged or less privileged learners who does not have access to basic digital resources (e.g. laptops and internet connectivity) and the skills to use them effectively (World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/). In some poorer homes, most children do not have a desk, computer, internet connectivity or parents who can guide them when they encounter any digital challenges. Also, some teachers/tutors do not have the required digital skills and cannot afford the necessary data needed to sustain online teaching and learning (The conversation, https://theconversation.com/how-south-africa-can-address-digital-inequalities-in-e-learning-137086)
Similarly, in the healthcare sector, COVID-19 crisis has exposed the weaknesses of digital inequalities experienced by some South Africans (RIA’s, https://researchictafrica.net/). In order to minimize in-person visits to healthcare facilities, some healthcare providers have embraced telemedicine or virtual healthcare services as a more preferable alternative to the traditional doctor appointments. They connect with their patients via phone calls, video chat platforms such as skype, zoom and WhatsApp to diagnose and manage certain conditions without necessarily having a physical contact with their patients. However, while some privileged South Africans can afford a virtual or telephonic consultation with healthcare providers in order to avoid being infected or contaminated by coronavirus at the hospital, the disadvantaged or less privilege find it hard to consult and talk to their therapist online. This is because of their inability to access and use digital resources for such purpose.
Likewise, for online shopping, it is very easy for the few privilege South African to safely order for their grocery via online shopping so as to avoid the physical exposure of being in a grocery shop. Whereas the less privileged South Africans lament in hunger as they are not conversant with the usage of digital resources to order for their groceries. This digital discrepancy in access to digital resources and connectivity between the poor and the rich is so huge. It is important to note that in South Africa, the importance of Information communication technologies (ICTs) is now more emphasized ever than before due to novel coronavirus pandemic. Hence, individual digital engagement plays a key factor in the success of most businesses, academic performance, health services and entrepreneurship.
However, as there is an exponential increase of COVID-19 cases in South Africa and the call to “#StayAtHome” becomes substantial, this will have an adverse effect on the disadvantaged South Africans who are already eluded from the digital vision given by the National Development Plan (NDP). According to the principal researcher and economist at Research ICT Africa, Shamira Ahmed, “the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to increase the digital inequality that exists in our country, unless it acts as an ‘external shock’ to policymakers and regulators”.
How digital inequalities in South Africa can be addressed
As ICTs revolution spreads rapidly due to COVID-19 pandemic, the notion of digital inequalities becomes even more significant. Hence, the faster at which South African government can address digital inequalities will determine the level to which it will be able to maximize the potential benefits of advanced technologies for equitable development. A wide range of factors must be considered in addressing these challenges.
Firstly, there should be a policy intervention aimed at ensuring more equitable inclusion of the populace into a modern and digital economy. For example, a policy should be developed to provide Wi-Fi connectivity for citizens in all public buildings and other public spaces. Furthermore, since most South Africans are advised to work/study remotely online from home so as to comply with social distancing rules, there should be a free mobile data or free public Wi-Fi for the disadvantaged or less privileged of the population who are still being excluded from basic access to digital resources. Although some mobile service providers in South Africa have subsidized their data prices, there are still some people who cannot afford it. In addition, to the free public Wi-Fi, “zero rating” may also be introduced to some websites. This implies that there will be no price incurred for the data used in accessing such websites or an application. Hence, it is the responsibility of the government to work with stakeholders, such as the mobile service providers and regulators, to ensure implementation of important policies and regulations in support of free data cost for the South Africans who are disadvantaged. This is important in deepening digital inclusion among the South Africans especially during this COVID-19 pandemic period.
Secondly, it is a known fact that in South Africa digital inequality is being aggravated by costly mobile devices which are needed to work and/or study from home during this COVID-19 lockdown. Hence, it is the responsibility of the government to work with various stakeholders and make provision of such devices available for the low-income earners or the less privileged South Africans who cannot afford to buy such mobile devices. In addition, soft loans can be introduced and made accessible with low interest rate and long-term repayment. In order words, the interest rate that will be charged should be much lower than the market interest rate for such loans. This will enable the disadvantaged South Africans to seize that opportunity to apply for the loan and make gradual repayment as stipulated as part of the terms and condition for the loan.
Thirdly, digital inequality can be curtailed by enabling a conducive regulatory environment in the educational sector and addressing any delay that may occur from ICT infrastructure which may include late delivery of widespread broadband access across the country. This is in accordance with a report by Shamira Ahmed, the principal researcher and economist at Research ICT Africa which says “there is need to facilitate a more competitive and enabling environment that addresses developmental goals and transforms the South African ICT sector to better facilitate participation in the digital economy”
Lastly, digital skilling and education are the key determinant of digital inclusion. With COVID-19 pandemic, technology is no longer a luxury but a necessity that better facilitate active participation in the digital economy. Hence, it is important that all government employees, staff and students of higher education institutions are well trained on the use of technology. This ICT training should be carried out regularly and at no cost to all participants. Furthermore, the government can make ICT training to be multilingual in order to accommodate those people from disadvantaged background who may have limited understanding of English language. This will enable better understanding as different languages spoken in South Africa will be used in the delivery of the training. This is because only technologically skilled and competent staff and students will be able to confidently perform effectively especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the current COVID-19 outbreak, digital inequalities in South Africa has now become an alarming issue that must be urgently addressed. While most South Africans are expected to comply with social distancing rules by continuing working remotely from home, it is important that the government make effort to bridge the gap of digital disparity between the rich and the poor in getting access to digital technologies. This is because the longer the extension of the lockdown, the more the likelihood of having digital disparity between the rich and the poor in terms of access to digital resources. Hence, the government needs to make extra effort in bridging the gap of digital inequalities by working with various stakeholders ( e.g. the mobile service providers and regulators) to ensure the implementation of important policies and regulations towards improving the quality of infrastructure coverage and providing financial support to those who cannot afford to get digital technologies, and high speed internet access. Furthermore, it is recommended that the government should provide ICT training to those South Africans who are already disadvantaged during this COVID-19 outbreak.
Dr Lizzy Oluwatoyin Ofusori is a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban. She writes in her personal capacity