“Editor’s Note: In the digital era we live in, seven “super platforms” in the U.S. and China constitute two-thirds of total market value worldwide. Yet we hardly see any significant joint efforts between the U.S. and China to help combat digital divides in the least developed countries. This article originally appeared in ThinkChina”.
The COVID-19 crisis has interrupted daily life and business routines across the world, caused a massive loss of millions of lives, and exacerbated economic disparities within and between countries. COVID-19 has also revealed fundamental challenges in the international order. As Kissinger has asserted, “the world will never be the same after the coronavirus.” One can reasonably expect that cynicism regarding regional and global integration, as well as radical populism, racism, ultra-nationalism and xenophobia, will likely continue to rise around the world.
At this critical juncture, it has become even more essential to examine the urgent challenges that the world confronts and to engage in global cooperation instead of devolving into constant contention and confrontation. One of the most urgent tasks for the international community is to overcome growing digital divides.
Digital divides in least developed countries (LDCs) have been particularly salient, as digitally disconnected populations have been left further behind during the pandemic. The U.S. and China, two superpowers in the digital era, should work in tandem with the international community to jointly combat digital divides and COVID-19.
THE EXPANSION OF DIGITAL DIVIDES IN LDCS
Despite the global growth of digital technologies, a 2021 United Nations report noted that nearly half of the world’s population, 3.7 billion people, lack internet access. Deficiency of digital connectivity is especially prevalent within LDCs, where more than 80% of the population are still offline. In comparison, the unconnected population in developed countries and developing countries stands at 13% and 53%, respectively.
LDCs account for about 14% of the world’s population, and they comprise more than half of the world’s extremely poor. Digital divides both reflect and reinforce socioeconomic disparities. The pandemic has aggravated existing inequalities, often resulting in a widening gap of digital skills.
As a result of COVID-19-induced economic difficulties, the population of extreme poor in LDCs expanded by 32 million, and the number of people in poverty in LDCs grew to 36% in 2020, 3% more than in prior years. More specifically, LDCs lag further behind in the following three areas.
In 2018, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, over 70% of the population in developed countries purchased goods and services online while only 2% in LDCs did the same. The digital divide deprives workers and consumers in LDCs of the opportunity to benefit from e-commerce on both the supply and demand ends.
Public health and vaccine distribution
People in LDCs have been unable to access essential health care information during the pandemic. Moreover, LDCs in Africa have particularly been disadvantaged in terms of obtaining vaccines. By mid-September 2021, of the nearly six billion doses of vaccines distributed globally, only 2% have been injected in Africans. According to a recent report released by the United Nations, Africa faces a shortage of 470 million doses of vaccine in 2021.
Approximately 1.6 billion students around the world faced disrupted education in 2020. While online education and digital learning filled the gap during the COVID-19 shutdown, more than half of the world’s young people are “on the wrong side of the digital divide”. About 826 million students do not have access to a computer at home. The difference is particularly stark in LDCs. In sub-Saharan Africa, 89% of learners lack access to computers at home, and 82% lack internet access.
These growing digital divides and economic disparities in the COVID-19 era highlight the fact that technological revolution on its own cannot bring inclusive economic growth or distributional justice. On the contrary, technology often enhances the tension and animosity between the haves and have-nots both locally and globally.
THE URGENT NEED FOR U.S.-CHINA JOINT ACTION TO COMBAT DIGITAL DIVIDES AND COVID-19
The priorities and perspectives of major powers differ significantly when it comes to cyber issues. But this should not prevent the U.S., China, and others from addressing common challenges such as digital divides. Major countries have the convening power to establish and reinforce international rules, norms, standards, principles, and codes of conduct. They also have greater financial and human resources to make combating digital divides feasible at the global level.