Updated: March 20, 2020 11:36:45 am
The Covid-19 pandemic may have struck prosperous, consumerist nations disproportionately hard. But the crisis has outlined, more sharply than ever before, the digital divide and differential access, which are pushing the poor to high-risk behaviour. In the shanties of Mumbai, residents with poor access to clean water are denied the first line of defence — the ability to wash their hands regularly. In industrial belts like those in Haryana, workers on production lines and in ancillary units do not have the luxury of working from home. In fact, only people working in sectors with completely dematerialised products are able to work from home in a sustained manner. And the digital divide reduces access to information on the pandemic and measures which the less fortunate could take to contain the spread of infection. Their access is limited to television, which has a dynamic and compulsions of its own, while the educated can rely upon websites tracking the pandemic, which offer broader and more detailed information.
In a digital economy facing a disease against which caution enabled by public information is the only safeguard, the disconnected have-nots are most at risk, both of suffering themselves and of amplifying the footprint of the infection. Indeed, there are divides across geographical borders, too. In the US, Google and Facebook are in talks with the government to help track how people move and gather, using phone data. This will put sensitivities about privacy to the test. But, as in times of war, personal priorities may be set aside in favour of the public interest. This question may not even arise outside the US, since companies in other nations do not have location data of similar depth. On the other hand, in Mumbai, the authorities are using phone GPS to monitor home quarantine and ensure that it is not breached, a novel use for an old technology.
For about two decades, public interest groups in several countries have argued that the internet should be regarded as an essential service, and access to it as a fundamental right. Whether it is for working remotely or for accessing information and maintaining communications while in isolation, the case for reliable connectivity looks more convincing than ever. In pandemics of the future, it could make the difference between nations that are able to shield themselves from contagion, and those that are simply inundated by the wave.
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