In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, social life has gone digital in new ways. People the world over are being urged to work remotely from home. Virtual get-togethers have replaced in-person gatherings as global mental health takes a tailspin. All the while, governments are being forced to switch to online platforms to deliver its services, such as welfare and various social programs. Perhaps more than at any time in human history, the ability to effectively participate economically, socially and even politically hinges on being able to harness Information Communication Technology (ICT) and its offerings.
And great strides have been made in terms of ICT access across the globe. In only two decades, the number of global internet users has increased from 413 million in 2000 to nearly 5 billion today. The number of internet-connected devices is predicted to increase from 500 million to over 50 billion within the same period, with each person having access to an average of 6.6 devices in total. Average internet speeds have more than tripled from 2Mbps in 2011 to just over 7Mbps in 2017, and has probably increased by a factor or two since then. These indicators all paint a picture of rapid progress for global ICT connectivity that is expected to continue to grow exponentially.
Yet, these trends hide the billions that still remain without reliable access to various ICT services. There are also real concerns when it comes to the quality and dependability of internet networks and devices that new internet users—most of them from the Global South—have at their disposal. With the increased need for internet connectivity that comes with the push to the ‘New Normal’ wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that global internet usage will see a spike as demand surges past previous projections.
Regions in the Global South that were already racked by inequality and burdened by sizable concentrations of resource-poor and economically vulnerable populations before the pandemic will likely continue to experience gaps in ICT infrastructure, access and connectivity. This will make their transition to a life online an unbelievably difficult prospect. Such a manifestation of marginalization in the online space has various real-world consequences. For many, such as the chronically excluded, the urban and rural poor, the illiterate and the very old, the transition will be, quite literally, virtually impossible.
In this blog post, we shed light on the discourses surrounding the current digital divide using Jamaica as a case study for the experiences one might come to expect in the Global South. We will attempt to provide an overview of the systematic issues which hinder geographical equity of the nation’s ICT infrastructure and access among large swaths of its population. This is followed by discussions of how vulnerable and economically oppressed groups are disproportionately affected by these institutional challenges in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. We demonstrate how many are left with no other option but to break state-mandated health protocols and social-distancing guidelines, risking their lives and the lives of their families in the process. All the while, such groups face severe social scrutiny and public backlash for their actions, spurring latent social tensions that threaten to exacerbate division in an already fractured society.
An Island Grappling with Systematic and Multidimensional Inequalities
By all indicators, the island nation of roughly 3 million people remains marred by various measures of inequality. Some of them can be owed to its colonial legacy of exploitation and dependence on market ties to the metropole, and the loss of such arrangements that came with independence. The subsequent rising tide of neoliberalism and global competition has forced Jamaica, like many other small island developing states, to ‘race to the bottom’ in order to attract foreign investment and trade (Hampton and Jeyacheya, 2020). The cumulative effect of this has been disastrous. The 2018 Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index ranked Jamaica 96th out of some 157 nations, far behind many other states in the Caribbean region. Jamaica also faces crippling public debt, which reached a historic high of 147% of its GDP in 2013, making it one of the most indebted countries in the world at the time. The country’s resources are therefore spread rather thinly so that it struggles to reliably provide adequate infrastructure, social protection and critical service provision for many of its vulnerable citizens, including the roughly one-fifth of the population classified as living below the poverty line (Statistical Institute of Jamaica, 2017).
Beyond sheer poverty, high crime rates and the growth of informal economic activities, one pervasive manifestation of this inequality that regularly goes unaddressed is the country’s constrained access to ICT devices and services. Jamaica’s digital divide has only worsened with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Disparities in ICT devices and services have also threatened to exacerbate other forms of inequality, further constraining development in areas of job creation, security and education that were already challenged before the pandemic arose.
Although developmental efforts have been instituted by governmental agencies—e.g. the Universal Service Fund (USF)—the nation is far from achieving universal ICT access. Initiatives like those of the USF are limited in their reach, failing to confront issues of ICT access for a number of core demographic groups so that large segments of the population remain underserved. For example, the USF’s Technology Advancement Programme (TAP) only focuses on enhancing computer literacy among persons aged 18-35. Community Access Points (CAPs) have also been put in place to improve ICT coverage but are concentrated around urban and coastal areas, and are largely absent from rural areas which arguably may have the greatest need for them. Additionally, little emphasis has been placed on improving the quality of ICT services and products afforded to the general public.
Equitable participation in this digital landscape is therefore a lofty ideal that would only be made possible by rapid investment and widespread infrastructural development. This task may be all but impossible for a country whose economy was struggling quite a bit before, and which is taking an even bigger hit in the midst of the pandemic. With limited emergency funding at their disposal, the government has little choice but to direct it towards an under-resourced health sector and the provision of aid and stimulus packages to help support jobs and assist the vulnerable in meeting their most immediate needs. Though noted by the government to be important, addressing structural inequities in internet coverage and access to quality ICT devices and products will certainly not be achievable in the near future, and this situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. Many are, and will continue to be excluded from being able to transition their everyday activities to a virtual environment. They become locked out of accessing opportunities and services found digitally, and are ultimately forced to cope using other means.
The Difficult Realities Faced by the Vulnerable
While access to quality ICT services and products provides a medium for many persons to work, socialize and stay connected during the pandemic, the lack of such levels of access and quality of ICT resources in marginalized communities has led to economic and social development being traditionally embedded in tangible person-to-person interactions (Kinlocke et al., 2020). In many public housing projects and tenement yards across Kingston, housing units are extremely overcrowded. There may be some households with more than ten persons confined to a one or two bedroom living space. Persons often have no other choice but to be outside. For many, all aspects of their life—their job, social activities and leisure—are all experienced outside their home, on the block in shared community space, or in the city. Their home may not even be able to accommodate all household members at once.
The morbid truth is that these persons risk their lives and the lives of their families not because they want to deliberately disobey stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines, but simply because they lack the means to follow them. While they cannot make a living and socialize if they are dead, many consider themselves to be dead anyway if they are unable to work and have a social life. For those without ICT access, life cannot be sustained in the home and their daily activities cannot be easily transferred there (Kinlocke et al., 2020). Additionally, the significant informality which characterizes many poor neighbourhoods explicitly means that face-to-face interactions remain the only means for accessing economic and social opportunities (Delaporte and Pena, 2020). Informal businesses can move online but this can be an incredibly difficult prospect given the prevalent inequity in access to various ICT resources along with the knowledge to utilize them effectively.
Therefore, despite being used as a means of securing public health, mandatory lockdowns and curfews in Jamaica pose a significant threat to the economic and social development, as well as the physical and mental wellbeing, of the country’s most vulnerable groups. In response, those affected are often forced into making one of two equivocally dire options: disrupt their way of life and established modes of garnering income, or maintain these practices while risking encounters with the police and potential COVID infections.
However, traditional media houses and the general public on social media platforms often associate the inability of these vulnerable populations to adhere to public health guidelines not as an issue of inequality, but as unabashedly defiant breaches of social norms. Indeed, this resulted in the spread of volatile social commentary that cast the actions of vulnerable, typically low-income groups as ‘threatening’, non-adherence by individuals belonging to other social groups is regularly ignored. This dynamic manages to rile class-based tensions, and helps to legitimize the rejection of vulnerable marginalized groups by wider society.
Commenters on these posts regularly espoused discriminatory notions and engaged in blatant expressions of dehumanization against the marginalized populations depicted, often failing to consider how their debilitating circumstances are likely to be exacerbated by inequities in ICT access as well as other resources. One commenter stated, “It’s what’s called Herd Mentality like if there is a Stampede. All the Buffalos runs the same way. Right or wrong”. This simplistic meta-narrative also saw many commenters expressing outrage towards the persons in the videos. Many stated that they were undeserving of state resources such as healthcare, with some making the exaggerated claim, perhaps figuratively, to: “Leave them, let them die. It will be better for the government”. Another comment espoused the cruel idea of total destruction of their communities, saying, “I always said they need to drop a bomb in this area so that it can start over from scratch”.
The Way Forward
We see how inequalities in quality and access of digital products and services may have direct implications for sustainable development as ICT has been increasingly incorporated into the functioning of numerous essential public and private services such as education, health and finance. ICT access is yet another marker of social inequality that feeds into social polarization as part of a vicious cycle that traps the excluded from escaping their chronic debilitating circumstances. Inequality becomes self-perpetuating unless disparities are addressed and support is given to sensitization campaigns that can promote greater levels of understanding of how unequal distribution of wealth can lead to stark social realities. Further study is needed to identify gaps in existing policies, challenges facing access and the needs of the people towards generating an equitable, knowledgeable and safe ICT society in Jamaica.
Delaporte, I. and Peña, W., 2020. Working from home under COVID‐19: Who is affected? Evidence from Latin American and Caribbean countries [online]. COVID Economics(14). Available from: https://cepr.org/content/covid‐economics‐vetted‐and‐real‐time‐papers‐0(30) [Accessed 9 November 2020].
Hampton, M.P. and Jeyacheya, J., 2020. Tourism-dependent small islands, inclusive growth, and the blue economy [online]. One Earth, 2(1), pp.8-10. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2019.12.017 [Accessed 9 November 2020].
Kinlocke, R., Mahabir, A., Anderson, R., Smith, R., Doughorty, K. and Madho, C., 2020. Media bias and social polarization: A qualitative exploration of the public discourse towards vulnerable social groups during the COVID-19 pandemic in Kingston, Jamaica. Manuscript in Preparation.
Statistical Institute of Jamaica, 2017. Living conditions and poverty [online]. Statistical Institute of Jamaica. Available from: https://statinja.gov.jm/living_conditions_poverty.aspx [Accessed 9 November 2020].