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Why COVID-19 will widen the global digital gap

Employees work at their desks inside Tech Mahindra office building in Noida, India. Reuters

The coronavirus pandemic has radically accelerated the adoption of digital technology in the global economy, creating an opportunity for millions of new businesses and jobs. However, it has also left millions jobless and exposed yet another vulnerability: hundreds of millions of people lack access to this technology.

To be sure, this divide was already present before COVID-19 struck. But unequal access to the internet and technology is going to make the multiple impacts of the pandemic much worse for offline and unskilled communities, among others. In fact, there is not a single global digital gap, but rather several ones that the coronavirus will likely exacerbate.


Rich vs poor countries. Although more than half of the world's population is now online, internet access remains quite low throughout the developing world, where connectivity is largely expensive, slow and unreliable. This means a vegetable trader in Nairobi, for example, may use basic mobile phone payments but cannot expect to sell his produce online because most of his buyers are neither online nor aware of e-commerce.

In developing countries, governments lack the funds and private companies the financial incentive to invest in broadband for all. The economic crisis triggered by the pandemic will further discourage betting big on digital infrastructure plans where they are most needed, so the digitalized world will speed ahead in the fast lane while 3.2 billion unconnected people remain stuck.

Skilled vs unskilled workers. For some, COVID-19 has radically transformed the nature of learning and work, as technology now allows both to be done remotely. This may become the norm in certain societies after the public health crisis has passed.

Microsoft predicts that a pandemic-fueled quantum leap in global tech adoption will create 149 million new digital jobs by 2025. However, those jobs require tech skills that almost no one who has lost a job due to COVID-19 can acquire fast enough to benefit from the future digital hiring spree.

Women vs men. More men than women use the internet in all regions of the world except in the Americas. The digital gender gap is actually growing in some parts of the world, and almost nowhere is it more glaring than in India, where conservative attitudes in some parts of the country ban women and girls from using smartphones or social media.

Unless urgent measures are taken, women will miss out on many of the new job opportunities because they are less likely than men to own a smartphone or have access to the web. The pandemic will thus exacerbate gender discrimination, a violation of a human right.

Urban vs rural communities. Experts believe 5G networks will be a game-changer by massively expanding data download and processing speeds for driverless cars, smart cities, and connected factories. That will be the case for cities, where this technology is already available.

Rural areas, however, will be much slower to adopt 5G — and attract the new jobs this technology will enable — because it is more expensive to install when communities are less dense. Even in the US, the world's largest economy, rural states like West Virginia already feared they would have to wait years or even decades to get 5G networks before the pandemic. Now, they may be left even further behind.

Bottom line: COVID-19 has plunged the world into the worst economic crisis in a century, while also accelerating the digitization of the workplace. People who can already learn or work remotely — and have or can pick up the skills needed to land the new digital jobs — will thrive. Those who don't have laptop jobs or can't land them, and who don't have access to virtual education or work, will have a much harder time.

Microsoft announced earlier this year the launch of a new United Nations representation office to deepen their support for the UN's mission and work. Many of the big challenges facing society can only be addressed effectively through multi-stakeholder action. Whether it's public health, environmental sustainability, cybersecurity, terrorist content online or the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, Microsoft has found that progress requires two elements - international cooperation among governments and inclusive initiatives that bring in civil society and private sector organizations to collaborate on solutions. Microsoft provided an update on their mission, activities for the 75th UN General Assembly, and the team. To read the announcement from Microsoft's Vice President of UN Affairs, John Frank, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

When Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday — plunging the country into chaos as it faces once-in-a-generation public health and economic crises — he became the fourteenth Italian to vacate the prime ministership in three decades. (For contrast, Germany has only had three chancellors since 1982, and France has had five presidents.)

But Conte, who had no previous political experience until he was tapped for the top job in 2018, is not so much throwing in the towel as he is taking a massive gamble that President Sergio Mattarella will again appoint him to head Conte's third coalition government in less than three years.

The recent dysfunction is unique even within the context of instability-prone Italian politics. How did Italy get here, and what might come next?

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Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics on this week's World In (More Than) 60 Seconds:

What did you think of Xi Jinping's speech at the virtual World Economic Forum?

Well, his last speech at the real World Economic Forum in Davos, I remember being there four years ago, and given that Trump had just been elected, Xi Jinping gives this big, "We want to stand up and be leaders while the Americans are doing America first." And generally speaking, was probably the most important speech of the week. People liked it. This is a pretty different environment, not so much because Trump has gone, but rather because support and belief in Xi Jinping is pretty low. I will say one thing that was generally well responded to was the call not to enter into a new Cold War. Anybody in the business community generally supports that. There's so much integration and interdependence between the US and the Chinese economies that when Xi Jinping says, "We need to find ways to continue to work together," I mean, this is the pro-globalization audience he's speaking to. They generally agree. But otherwise, the message fell pretty flat. So, the idea that China is going to be globally useful on issues of leadership, especially when it comes to anything that might threaten Beijing's sovereignty, they check global norms at the door. And a few examples of that, when Xi called for support for the rules-based international order, that's in obvious contrast with China's violation of the one country, two systems framework in Hong Kong. And they said, "Well, that's a domestic issue." Well, actually that's not what your agreement was with the British handover. And just because you're more powerful doesn't mean that norm doesn't matter anymore.

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Over the weekend, some 40,000 people in Moscow and thousands more across Russia braved subzero temperatures to turn out in the streets in support of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. More than 3,000 protesters were arrested, and Navalny called on his followers to prepare for more action in the coming weeks.

But just who is Alexei Navalny, and how significant is the threat that he may pose to Vladimir Putin's stranglehold on power in Russia?

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Angry farmers take Indian fort: In a major and violent escalation of ongoing protests over new agriculture laws, thousands of Indian farmers broke through police barricades and stormed the historic Red Fort in New Delhi on Tuesday. At least one protester died in the chaos, while the government shut down internet service in parts of the capital. Farmers and the government are still deadlocked over the new laws, which liberalize agriculture markets in ways that farmers fear will undercut their livelihoods. The government has offered to suspend implementation for 18 months, but the farmers unions are pushing for a complete repeal. Given that some 60 percent of India's population works in agriculture, the standoff has become a major political test for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP party.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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