Gillwald: COVID-19 compounds effect of digital inequality

As part of the University of Western Cape’s Research Week 2020, RIA’s executive director, Dr Alison Gillwald was a panellist in the webinar, “Realising the Benefits of the Digital Ecosystem in Rural South Africa: Policy, Regulation and Implementation Issues”, which took place on October 2nd, 2020.

Gillwald highlighted the fact that the COVID-19 lockdowns have brought into sharp relief, the implications of digital inequality for access, for life opportunities and livelihoods; highlighting the fact that the survival ability of those who are not meaningfully connected to the Internet in order to mitigate the effects of the lockdown, have been devastating. While a small elite has been able to move significant aspects of their lives online.

The COVID-19 lockdowns have also highlighted the fact that value chains have been completely ruptured in the vast informal sector across the Global South, preventing it from serving as the usual buffer to these economic shocks, she said.

According to Gillwald, COVID-19 has highlighted, for the first time, the compounding impact of digital inequality. “We’ve all known for a long time that digital inequality reflects structural equality in society. But what we’ve seen with the lockdown is this compounding effect where those who are offline, because they’re really structurally obstructed, are  further unable to mitigate the negative effects of the lockdown to participate in the online economy.”

This highlights the importance of the lack of penetration—where the inequity of penetration and usage of quality of services, are reflected even in our inability to use advanced technologies, Gillwald said, as she went on to discuss implications for contact tracing in South Africa.

South Africa is assumed to be part of the middle income countries that can use advanced technologies for the purposes of contact tracing, monitoring of AI dashboards and those kinds of things. However, we simply don’t have the Internet penetration, which was probably 50% in 2018 when RIA conducted a study; currently estimated to be around 60%, possibly be a bit more. But we don’t have enough Bluetooth enabled phones to make use of the applications for contact tracing and detection. So, South Africa doesn’t have the volumes or intensity of use, nor the penetration to use a lot of the smart apps, she said.

We simply don’t have the physical resource or the state capacity even to follow up on the mobile data for contact tracing purposes. RIA has a policy brief out on the latest COVID-19 app and challenges in terms of using it for the benefit of the population. Again, it’s going to serve, effectively, an elite in the population and it really brings us to this problem in the information era of a digital inequality paradox, which is a major challenge, and of course, the governance of this because these are effectively global public goods that are very difficult to govern at the global level and to realize at the national level as global public goods, Gillwald concluded.