Covid-19 widens digital divide between urban and rural communities

By Musa Makina

The novel Covid-19 pandemic has not only claimed millions of lives the world over, but it has also disrupted daily life in unprecedented ways and exacerbated inequalities in human development.

Literally, the new normal means that as long as the world has not found a cure for Covid-19, people may have to adjust to a new way of living.  

However, while, in urban areas, people have managed to make do with working from home and conducting virtual meetings, it seems the rural areas are lagging behind.

This comes at a time Zimbabwe through the ministry of ICT has embraced and has been trying to spearhead technological advancement including in rural areas.

While, the development is a notable and remarkable one, the roll-out of ICT in rural communities is happening at a slow pace.

The adoption of technological tools like video conferencing due to the ban on physical gatherings as part of the Covid-19 preventative measures has widened the urban and rural digital divide.

To prove how the divide has had serious effects in some cases is Zapu’s recent case in point where the party was recently forced to postpone its elective congress after realising that hosting a virtual congress was going to disfranchise the rural populace.

The party president noted they had considered having a virtual congress but that would be a challenge because most of their members were based in rural areas.

“Unfortunately politics is not like a business that can be done online. Our members are mostly rural and imagine the hassles of putting people like your grandfather in virtual space sometimes it becomes difficult unless someone has a gadget and brings them together. But this is a congress and we are looking at 1000 people,” said Zapu interim president Isaac Mabuka.

He further explained: “Some places have no network and it becomes very unfair.  We did consider it but maybe as a last resort we may go for it but it will not bring exactly what people want or the leadership they need. Choosing leaders is different from a conference because people want to be hands-on.”

While, the Zapu scenario might be taken otherwise, this has been the case for many a rural folk since the pandemic hit the country.

A research by this publication however revealed that many traditional leaders are back to their old ways of bringing people together whenever they want to address issues.

One village head in Umguza who refused to be named, said public meetings are still happening.

“We always have a number of meetings here where we bring people together at my homestead. The last meeting that we had was about the farming implements that we have been receiving from the government. There was no other way, so you will realise that you can’t leave anyone out, because if someone is a beneficiary he has to be here. So what this means is at the end of the day covid-19 regulations are easily broken because this is about food, everyone wants to be there,” the village head said.

A rural-based organisation that seeks to advocate for the welfare of rural people, Rural Communities Empowerment Trust noted that it was sad that rural people are still affected by the digital divide.

“In Zimbabwe, we still have years if not decades for us to effectively deal with the digital divide. This is mainly because we haven’t as a country invested in digital infrastructure that caters for the rural areas. 

“The rate at which government is implementing its digital expansion program in rural areas is very low and selective. You will find that if you go to Zvimba, everything is there yet you come to Matabeleland even main service providers like hospitals, schools and even government offices are ill-equipped infrastructure wise. 

“In reality, this means our people will continue to miss out and lag behind on development as a result of this deliberate digital divide by our authorities,” Rural Communities Empowerment Trust coordinator Vumani Ndlovu said.

Ndlovu went to say lack of access to ICTs is the reason some parents failed to help their children with school work since the outbreak of Covid-19.

“We had massive poor Grade 7 results and I strongly attribute this lack of information technology to this poor performance. Why because other kids in urban areas were learning via radio, zoom, WhatsApp and other digital platforms,” he said.

Before the pandemic, global inequalities in access to the internet were already abundantly clear. Almost half of the households globally still have no access to the internet, according to UNESCO. But, as much of the global economy moved online, the pandemic revealed just how inadequate internet access is in many parts of the developed and developing world.

Advancements in technology have rapidly accelerated global digitalisation. The number of people with internet access has more than doubled over the past decade, according to the World Economic Forum.

In Zimbabwe, mobile internet and data usage went up by about 43 percent since the outbreak of the pandemic last year. 

The pandemic also pushed up internet usage worldwide by up to 73 percent as masses were forced to migrate to online platforms for school, business, entertainment and pleasure to curb the spread of the virus.

While an increase in internet and data usage can be celebrated as a step towards development, the advancement exposed a massive resource constraint among thousands who have no access to gadgets, network and money to go online.

The most affected are the rural folk who found themselves cut off from economic, political and social activities because they have no means to be online.

But despite socio-economic challenges brought by Covid-19, service providers have been hiking prices ever since lockdown putting data and internet bundles out of reach for thousands.

Chief Mabikwa of Lupane, however, admitted that the infrastructural gap was the biggest let down to close the digital gap.

“For rural areas, since Covid-19 started, it has been a major challenge to bring people together let alone communicate important information. Unlike in urban areas where almost everyone has an android phone or other communication gadgets like televisions, here we really had a challenge especially with farmers when we wanted to communicate for example about farming inputs and farming education because infrastructure wise we don’t have the digital mechanism to do that. So as it is, virtual meetings are virtually an impossible thing in rural areas at the moment and it has a huge effect on development,” Mabhikwa said.

Jerry Zingwevu a seasoned campaigner for the establishment of community radio stations said underrepresented marginalised communities mostly in rural locations have been negatively affected by the pandemic as far as media access and participation in public administration and governance is concerned.

“Most media, mainstream media included have had to utilise online platforms to try and have their audience access information and this has led to the greater disenfranchisement of the rural populace.

“Whilst the use of online platforms, social media included has been an innovative way to reach out to people, the rural people have been largely left out,” Zingwevu said.

He added: “Firstly they are affected by connectivity issues to the internet and secondly they are economically disenfranchised to afford smartphones which are compatible to virtual information platforms such zoom. Some cannot even afford Whatsapp.”

He further noted that without adequate access to information it means the rural population cannot actively participate in key development, governance and democratic processes.

ICT expert Joel Tsvakwi said the rural digitalisation process was still a mirage in Zimbabwe, basing on the slow progress of development on the digital front.

“Covid-19 has also revealed shortcomings in the way most people access the internet. Smartphones have brought millions of people in Zimbabwe online for the first time. But, while a mobile device is sufficient to browse social media and make payments, it is inadequate for more demanding activities such as video conferencing worse for someone who is based in the countryside and has no means to do so,” Tsvakwi said.

He said a lot of rural infrastructure investment and empowering of rural people was urgently needed if the country entertains any hope of bridging the digital divide within the next decade.

“It’s not an overnight thing, billions are needed to fully achieve this dream, otherwise, for now, rural areas will have to stick to their traditional means of gathering because as a country we are not yet ready to fully embrace that,” he said.

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