Coronavirus’ Digital Gaps

Published on March 20

Huge shocks often evidence the weight of unequal opportunities: in positive ones, to take advantage of them; when these are negative, to contain them and mitigate their effects. This is the case with COVID-19 and telework. As already seen incipiently, but it can become apparent in the coming weeks if – as specialists believe – the virus scales, digital transformation does not erase geographies; instead, it creates others, with its own obstacles, limits and differentiations, which public policy can (re)shape if proposed.

In the particular case of COVID-19 and telework, a key context factor is digital infrastructure, i.e. the physical assets required to use 3.0 or 4.0 technologies at home (information and communication, computing, data warehouse, etc.). If the distribution of these assets is uneven, so will the possibility of working from home.

The available evidence suggests that this is the case: digital transformation is still limited to one segment of the population. Three sets of data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) referring to 2019 allows us to reach that conclusion. Let’s review:

Fact 1: Half the world’s population remains offline. And the distribution is not random: it is associated with development levels. Between 8 and 9 out of 10 people use the internet in the advanced world, while 2 out of 10 in the least developed countries.

Percentage of Internet users, according to region and level of development (2019)

Source: Prepared by the authors based on ITU data

Fact 2: The proportion of households with internet access changes dramatically if instead of being in Paris we had to be 4000km further south: 8/9 out of every 10 compared to 1 in 10.

Percentage of households with Internet access at home and with a PC (2019)

Source: Prepared by the authors based on ITU data

Fact 3: It can be argued that the data is not representative because mobile cellphones are the key device, and its use is widespread. But still the gaps are gigantic if we correct by broadband use: 8 out of 10 in advanced countries, 3 out of 10 in poor countries.

 Mobile phone subscriptions and mobile broadband for every 100 people (2019)

Source: Prepared by the authors based on ITU data

The evidence we discussed earlier refers to country averages. If we focus on internal gaps in terms of income, social classes or gender, the situation is even more complex outside high-income countries. To this unequal distribution of digital infrastructure assets, we must add the key role of complementary factors that are also distributed asymmetrically, such as people’s digital skills.

Conclusion: encouraging telework in this context is good policy, but in the countries of the Global South a more systemic approach is required that, at the same time, help reduce the unequal access to digital infrastructure that we emphasize in this note. It is a trivial point, but the trivial is not always present in economic policy strategies.


Ramiro Albrieu

Principal Researcher of the Economic Development Program

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