Encountering the face of digital inequality

Managing the digital divide better has become “a matter of life and death” for people unable to access essential healthcare information during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the UN chief.

In the age of technology, digital divide is likely to decide the fate of humanity in many senses. How rapid technological change has impacted humanity and world aspirations can well be gauged from the way nations have nurtured ambitions to overcome communication bottlenecks and adopt digital solutions.

Against this backdrop, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres on June 11 while addressing the “High-level Thematic Debate on the (SDGs) and Impact of Rapid Technological Change on the Sustainable Development Goals Targets” at UN General Assembly noted that digital technology is central to almost every aspect of effective including pandemic response – vaccine research, online learning models, e-commerce, and work-from-home tools.  He pointed out that the digital divide between those on and offline, is threatening to become “the new face of inequality”, reinforcing the social and economic disadvantages suffered by women and girls, people with disabilities and “minorities of all kinds”.

Managing the digital divide better, has become “a matter of life and death” for people unable to access essential healthcare information during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the UN chief as reported by UN News. Guterres said that far from “distracting us from the urgency of digital cooperation, COVID-19 is making it more important than ever, and demonstrating the interconnected nature of the challenges we face”.

Stating that the world is only beginning to understand the social implications of a post-COVID world, Guterres pointed out, “But one thing is certain, as we recover and rebuild, digital technology will be more prominent and important than ever”.  The UN chief maintained that those without access to digital technology will be left further behind and referred to a 2018 report of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation concerning the optimization of technology, while mitigating its potential downsides. He announced that its recommendations to close the digital divide, including growing human and institutional capacity for today’s digital age; upholding human rights in digital contexts; building cyber trust and security; and agreeing on a new global architecture for digital cooperation; were all a part of the UN’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, which was also launched on Thursday, said UN News.

 “We cannot reap the full benefits of the digital age without mobilizing global cooperation to close digital gaps and reduce potential harms”, upheld the Secretary-General. Stressing the urgent need for “global vision and leadership”, Guterres said that the roadmap calls on everyone to take concrete action together to “connect, respect and protect people in the digital age”. “Future generations will judge whether we seize the opportunities of this unprecedented moment”, he concluded.

The message of the UN chief is loud and clear. However, are nations willing to cooperate with the visions and leadership as envisaged by him? Are technologically most advanced countries like Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, United States, Singapore, Finland, Switzerland etc ready to lead the world in closing the digital divide or are they constrained by global geo-politics of the day as witnessed in recent times after the coronavirus outbreak?

If one may recall, even the UN became a forum to fuel escalating tension between China and the United States and few countries taking sides depending on their own calculated benefits. Despite the hurdles, one can only hope nations will exhibit maturity in the light of the noble call given by the UN the Secretary-General to meet the new face of digital inequality.

First Published:June 15, 2020, 12:39 a.m.