Over the last few weeks, it has been estimated that just under two billion people globally have been under varying degrees of lockdown, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. While some have claimed that the novel coronavirus causing Covid-19 has been a “great leveller” because it impacts all people equally, this is untrue.
In the United States and the UK, it is black people who are disproportionately dying from the disease. In India, it is exploited migrant labourers who are bearing the brunt of measures to slow the spread of the virus. Informal workers in Kenya have borne the brunt of police brutality, as coronavirus-related restrictions are enforced. And in South Africa, food prices are skyrocketing while many in precarious employment have suffered a sudden and potentially long-term loss of income, which will have consequences that go beyond the lockdown. These are just a few examples of how across the world, the outbreak and subsequent measures put in place in response have highlighted structural inequalities, debunking the myth of it affecting us all equally.
The digital divide is another example of an inequality amplified by the virus and lockdowns. The internet is no longer a “nice to have”, but an essential utility that enables people to participate in society. While more than 60.1% of the country’s population accesses the internet on mobile devices, those living on average and below-average incomes are mostly not connected owing to affordability.
Given how the pandemic has expanded our reliance on the internet and for daily necessities like keeping informed and staying connected with our loved ones and communities, the importance of internet access has yet again been underscored. And with the government projecting that September will be when South Africa reaches its peak coronavirus infections, this reliance will only continue to grow.
While those of us who live in formality, with monthly incomes, can stay connected to our loved ones, shop online and work from home, this is not the reality for a significant part of our population. Mobile networks should zero-rate news sites and provide low-income consumers with at least 3GB of monthly data and five SMSes per day for free.
This is crucial. For those who are underprivileged, underpaid, losing their already hand-to-mouth incomes and who are not online at all, being disconnected has consequences that are far more serious than not being able to access basic online conveniences.
For example, like other countries, incidents of domestic violence have increased dramatically during the lockdown. Some victims who may previously have been able to get away, have been unable to due to lockdown travel restrictions. WhatsApp and SMS helplines have been set up for victims of gender-based violence, which are particularly helpful for women who are unable to call because their abuser is within earshot. But those without data and airtime may not be able to get the help they need.
For some people, not being online can make the difference between accessing much-needed income or not. The newly announced social relief of distress grant, which is a R350 grant for people who do not have any other source of income, is an example of this. Applications recently opened on WhatsApp and email. Online and SMS application options will also soon be finalised. Ensuring that low-income consumers are able to connect would enable them to access relief services like this.
Being able to access credible reliable information could save lives. While the Department of Health has done well to keep people informed, access to secondary sources of factual information will help support their efforts.
This was recently highlighted in South Africa when a video claiming testing kits were contaminated was widely shared on social media. A man called on people to refuse swab tests because “there’s a possibility that the swabs are contaminated with Covid-19”. He further went on to claim that the swabs were being used to spread the virus. According to the Gauteng Department of Health, the viral video led to some people in the province refusing to be screened and tested, fearing that they would be exposed to the virus.
We would do well to draw on lessons from the Ebola outbreak about the consequences of misinformation, which spread as quickly as the disease. According to a study published in The Lancet, “low institutional trust and belief in misinformation were associated with a decreased likelihood of adopting preventive behaviours, including acceptance of Ebola vaccines”. While the spread of misinformation did not happen in a vacuum, the experience highlights how crucial it is for people to be able to access factual information from sources beyond government.
What better way to enable this than free access to credible, independent news? Mobile network operators should zero-rate local news sites during this crisis. Potentially life-saving information should be available to everyone, even if they cannot afford to pay to access it.
To be sure, addressing the digital divide is a long-term problem that goes beyond the immediate crisis and plans for universal, free access will need to be prioritised. But with the majority of low-income consumers currently being dependent on mobile devices for their connectivity, action by mobile network operators is the easiest way to ensure immediate access for those who need it most given the urgency of the moment.
Of course, this will come at a cost to mobile network operators, but the fight against the pandemic and its impact is everyone’s business and they too need to step up. Zero-rating local news sites, providing at least 3GB of monthly data and five SMSes per day for the next three months, with a commitment to extend for another three should the crisis not yet be contained is a meaningful way for mobile network operators to expand the actions they are already taking as part of their coronavirus-response effort.
Access to the internet is essential all the time, but more so as we face a global crisis and restrictions on our everyday movements. No one should be without connection because they cannot afford it. DM