A cry for help: The COVID-19 pandemic and digital inequalitiesPosted: 8 May, 2020 | |
Author: Ayodeji Johnson
Communications and Advocacy Intern, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the current unprecedented times. The coronavirus has ravaged the world as it cuts across sex, age, race, class, and ethnicity in its vicious attack. Currently, almost 4 million cases with at least 270 000 deaths worldwide due to the pandemic. The aforementioned numbers are frightening and has caused the world to slowly move away from public and shared interactions to physical and social distancing, isolating in their homes. While the need for this physical distancing is undeniable as a way to potentially save lives, this forced isolation has also meant that work and particularly study has been confined to homes.
The right to education is an important right encapsulated in a number of international and regional human rights treaties. Article 17 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter) for instance, provides that every individual has a right to get an education. Unfortunately, one can safely assume that the drafters of this article did not contemplate how this right would be guaranteed during a pandemic. Yet, interestingly this pandemic has exposed problems and raised crucial questions on the fulfilment of the right to education in most African societies at this extraordinary period. The question that therefore needs to be asked is how COVID-19 has affected the right to education particularly in African countries. This is considering that in many African societies for instance, tertiary institutions have been forced and rightly so, to shut down, meaning that African students like other students globally are compelled to study online from home.
Indeed, the truth is that technology has become a crucial link between people and the outside world. Yet, there has been much talk of a ‘digital divide’ exposed as a prevalent gap between the access of individuals, at different socio-economic positions to Information Communication Technology (ICT) and internet usage. One prevailing factor for the ‘digital divide’ is inequality of access to digital media between wealthier and poorer individuals. During these times, this kind of digital divide has become even more apparent in the academic world. This ‘divide’ for instance exposes the existing structural inequalities in Africa, particularly in academic institutions as online services and resources will tend to favour learners with internet access and connection, leaving behind the marginalised learners who are most vulnerable to economic and social disruption. This further depicts educational inequalities between wealthy and poor learners due to unequal access to affordable internet services and equipment such as computers, smartphones and tablets.
The existence of a digital divide violates human rights. Specifically, it violates article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which guarantees the right to enjoy access to information without discrimination. As a fundamental part of societal discourse, there is therefore an essential need to begin to question how African governments responds to technology as well as liberating potential at a very human level.
There is no doubt that technology is an enabling tool, ensuring connectivity, access to life-saving information and indispensable in the fight against the vicious COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the many important lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that the digital divide complicates efforts to respond to the challenges society faces. Indeed, a poignant lesson from this pandemic is that there is a need to find ways to bridge the digital divide, which is quickly becoming a matter of life and death. The digital divide is therefore not just a human rights challenge nor will it be overcome through human rights law alone. While there have been commendable measures taken to bridge this divide including a zero rated data initiative that enables students access unique portals without incurring data charges and the provision of internet enabled devices that would be essential for online education for students in dire need who cannot afford such devices, the digital divide requires greater attention of governments, the private sector and civil society. Conclusively, COVID-19 presents an excellent opportunity for African governments to begin to integrate technological initiatives into their policies on education, poverty eradication and sustainable development.
 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Article 17).
 Z Lasame, Bridging the digital divide in South Africa and selected African countries. In N.C Lasame, (ed). New media Technology and policy in developing countries (2005) 3.
 IInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19).
 https://www.up.ac.za/coronavirus-updates/article/2889779/message-regarding-zero-rated-data. [Date accessed 24 April 2020].
About the Author
Ayodeji Johnson is a third year student of International Communication at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). He is currently a Communications and Advocacy Intern at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, as part of the Work Integrated Learning (WIL) Programme.