Coronavirus response in Cape Town, South Africa

Internet inequality holding back global Covid-19 response

Image credit: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

The Web Foundation, founded by World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has warned that the global coronavirus response is being inhibited by the fact that almost half of the world’s population is still offline.

The Web Foundation campaigns for universal internet access to be considered a basic right, as well as for a free, safe and open web.

Many aspects of government pandemic responses are communicated online (for instance, NHS advice on what to do if an individual has Covid-19 symptoms), while the rollout of digital tools such as contact-tracing apps are considered vital in slowing the spread of the disease as lockdown restrictions are tentatively lifted around the world.

In its latest report, the Web Foundation said that the coronavirus pandemic - which has forced hundreds of millions of people into lockdown, many of whom are now obliged to work or study remotely - underlines the importance of internet access.

“The web is a critical lifeline and yet billions are not connected as we fail to meet these targets,” said Adrian Lovett, president of the Web Foundation. “While this crisis affects everyone, those without the tools to protect themselves and their families are more vulnerable to the virus and its painful economic and social impacts.

“It’s clearer than ever that the web is a basic right, not a luxury. Efforts to tackle Covid-19 must include getting as many people connected to the internet as quickly as possible.”

The report warned that because most people unable to access the internet are in low and middle-income countries, efforts to minimise transmission and protect the most vulnerable people could be hindered in large parts of the world.

The Web Foundation predicts that the world is set to miss a UN Sustainable Development Goals target to reach “universal access” to the internet in the least developed countries by 2020. The Foundation estimates that by the end of this year, just 23 per cent of people in these countries will have internet access.

A second target from the UN’s Broadband Commission to reach 75 per cent of people globally and 35 per cent in the least developed countries by 2025 will also be missed, the group says, with just 70 per cent globally and 31 per cent in the least developed countries by that date.

“This global pandemic has cruelly exposed the extent of the digital divide,” Lovett continued. “Governments and companies must work urgently to accelerate progress to ensure that everyone, everywhere has the opportunity to get online.”

In March, data released by the United Nations’ (UN) education agency UNESCO showed that millions of children in Asia are at risk of falling behind in their studies due to school closures amid the coronavirus outbreak, with unequal access to the internet "hurting" poorer children as classes were moved online.

According to the UN figures, an unprecedented 363m children and young people worldwide were already being affected by the closures of schools and universities.

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