Decades ago, advocates of global equity worried about the digital divide. While innovators saw in digitisation opportunities that could help developing countries leapfrog the social gap, on the flipside were concerns that digital technologies could actually reinforce and deepen the economic divide between the north and the global south.
To varying degrees, both views manifest today. Digitisation has increased access to some services in the developing world but has not changed the structure of the global economy, which remains slanted in favour of those who control global capital. As the recent blockages of social handles of certain individuals, including heads of state, have demonstrated, tech giants have emerged as a potent power, far more powerful than even sitting governments in the poor parts of the world.
African leaders are too conscious of this entrenched asymmetry. Yet, even as they often speak out against it, they appear to be unconcerned about the social maps and the distribution of economic opportunity in their own countries. They are also unaware of the unfolding social inequality wrought by access — or the lack thereof — to digital services.
Nearly two years since life was turned topsy-turvy by the Covid-19 pandemic, governments have been left with no choice but to interrupt learning. Learners are often sent home, grounding an education system that relied heavily on the private sector as a provider of education.
Yet the shutdowns have not been universal or effective. Urban and mostly private schools catering to the middle class have created digital windows through which enrolled students can carry on with learning. Cash-strapped governments appear unwilling or incapable of stopping digital learning. While their own interventions such delivery of lessons over radio and television make them appear to be doing something to support continuity, they face the same social questions.
Only a small fraction of millions of the region’s learners whose academic progression was cut short have access to these new tools of learning. Infrastructure deficits and even lack of money to buy the data and electricity to power the tools of learning leave many behind.
Even in the best-case scenario, where learning has resumed, there is the question of the backlog caused by over a year of disruption. Existing education infrastructure is designed to hold only a certain number at a time. How will learners be accommodated without the risk of a spike in new infections?
The emerging picture is one where Covid-19 disruption is widening the gap between the rich and the poor by denying the latter opportunities that the former can access. That has grim implications for the economy, since business needs an educated and skilled population to drive growth. A huge population that cannot meaningfully participate in the economy is a drag and can easily implode.
Covid is here to stay and governments need to be thinking long term to come up with programmes that will ensure equity in access to education. A starting point could be to explore ways of delivering mass vaccination or, programmes that target the schoolgoing population.
The resources that have so far been wasted on experimentation with what is not working could have been applied to procurement and delivery of Covid-19 jabs.