Digital divide threatens health and wellbeing during pandemic – UN

The digital divide between the rich and poor is threatening health and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the increasing reliance on electronic technology for healthcare provision, the United Nations has warned. 

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres told a high-level meeting discussing the impact of rapid technological change on sustainable development that digital technology is central to nearly every aspect of the response to the pandemic. 

E-commerce and tools are enabling hundreds of millions of people to work and study from home, but the digital divide is now a matter of life and death for people who are unable to access essential healthcare information. 

Guterres told the meeting:  “It is threatening to become the new face of inequality, reinforcing the social and economic disadvantages suffered by women and girls, people with disabilities and minorities of all kinds.” 

He noted that in 2019, 87% of people in developed countries used the internet, compared with just 19% in the least developed countries. 

He also noted that there is “dramatic evidence” of the threats posed by ungoverned use of digital technology, citing issues such as exclusion and inequality, to surveillance, human rights abuses, and cybercrime. 

Guterres was not specific but there have been reports about the use of intrusive digital technology being used in China to control the disease. 

For instance the New York Times has reported that China’s authoritarian government has used tracking technology embedded in smartphones to collect vast amounts of information, including location data, on people from hundreds of cities across the country. 

But there are few controls over its use and there are concerns that the surveillance will continue after the pandemic, possibly for reasons other than health and wellbeing. 

Guterres said: “The pandemic has ushered in some of the most intrusive surveillance technologies we have ever seen, together with a significant increase in cynical ransomware attacks on hospitals and healthcare facilities.” 

He called for greater international cooperation on digital technology drawing attention to a “Road Map for Digital Cooperation” outlining steps that member states, the private sector, and the tech community can take to close the divide. 

He concluded: “We are only beginning to understand the social implications of a post‑COVID‑19 world. But, one thing is certain:  as we recover and rebuild, digital technology will be more prominent and important than ever.  Those without access will be left further behind.  We cannot reap the full benefits of the digital age without mobilising global cooperation to close digital gaps and reduce potential harms.” 

 Feature image courtesy of United Nations/Mark Garten

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