Digital divisions: COVID-19 policy and practice and the digital divide in Africa

The sudden and dramatic advent of the COVID-19 global pandemic caught the world by surprise and left many floundering for responses, none more so than those in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector: the policy makers, regulators and internet and other ICT service providers. It was a few short weeks from the first reports of a strange new respiratory illness in faraway Wuhan (December 2019), to the first cases in Africa (late February 2020), the declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic (March 2020) and the imposition of the first full draconian lockdown on the continent (end of March 2020).

The measures adopted by so many countries in Africa – the imposition of “social distancing” and stay-at-home strictures, the closure of businesses, shops and schools, travel bans and virus testing – had dramatic impacts on both economies and societies, on lives and livelihoods. And these measures, in turn, created a range of knock-on consequences for the ICT sector, its infrastructures and services, as access to the internet became both a key channel for authorities seeking to manage the crisis, and for citizens seeking to accommodate its exigencies.

Thus was precipitated a flurry of ICT sector interventions – from policy makers, regulators and government entities.2 Many of these have been designed to increase access to the internet, to mobile telephony, and to a range of data-enabled ICT services. Many are aimed either at promoting the dissemination of public service information or at mitigating the impacts of lockdowns and social distancing on the economy and society, on how individuals and their communities live, work and play. Most depend on effective access to the internet and to data services for their efficacy and impact. Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated in hard and practical ways that access to the internet, and the ability to benefit from its content and services, should now be considered a fundamental human right. 

In this article, we examine how policy makers, regulators and service providers responded to the COVID-19 explosion. The focus is specifically on the ICT sector, on telecoms and the internet, looking at some of the slew of ICT sector-specific measures, ranging from public service messaging, though temporary spectrum assignment and zero-rating of educational and health websites, to those actions intended to make access and services more affordable.


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