They told her a deadly virus “like a whooping cough” was gripping the country and had even hit the nearby city of Maicao. But she was skeptical it was so close to home. “I don’t know if this is true,” said 38-year-old Montiel, who is part of the country’s largest indigenous group, the Wayuu.
When the Colombian government issued a nationwide lockdown in late April, she and her husband were advised to stay at home with their three children, keep their distance from other people, wash their hands and wear masks to avoid the virus, which has killed more than 365,000 people around the world.
But for the Montiels, the stay-at-home order is its own sort of death sentence.
Before the lockdown, Angela would occasionally top up a SIM card in order to use WhatsApp, but hasn’t been able to recharge it since the lockdown. With no internet connection, there is no way to “work remotely.” Angela knits traditional Wayuu mochila bags but she can’t sell them in the street under the current restrictions.
For now, her family has been surviving off emergency cash payments from the non-government organization Mercy Corps. It’s impossible for her children to continue their education from home without access to school materials online. As for updates, they wait for phone calls from friends or family, who might bring news. Otherwise, they’re in the dark.
“Seeing as we don’t have TV, internet or anything, we don’t know if it’s still going on or if it will keep going, so obviously we can’t go out or move around,” Montiel said. “We’re in despair.”
Governments around the world have committed to providing universal access by 2020, but the digital divide still runs deep and is widening inequalities offline as well.
People in poorer regions are less likely to be connected, as are women, elderly people and those living in remote or rural areas. And in many cases, connectivity can be tenuous — closures of offices, schools or public spaces, like libraries and cafes, have cut access off for many.
“Covid-19 has shown that there’s such a huge divide, and it’s actually come as a shock to some governments. When they asked their employees to go work from home … a lot of them couldn’t.”
Sarpong is hopeful the crisis will break through long-existing barriers to internet access — from a lack of political will to regulatory hurdles and data affordability — to get more of the world connected.
“Governments need to look at internet access, not as a luxury, but to see it as an enabler that can transform their economies … I think it’s a wake-up call for them,” Sarpong said.
A digital gender gap
Digital technologies have rapidly revolutionized life as we know it. But not everyone is benefiting equally, and many are getting left behind because of a lack of infrastructure, literacy and training.
In India, an aggressive approach towards digitization has moved most government benefits online — from rations to pensions. Even before the pandemic, the country’s poorest were dependent on digital, despite half of the population being offline.
The pandemic has only magnified the irony of that situation.
Lal Bai, a 65-year-old widow living in a remote village in Rajasthan, couldn’t trek the five miles into the nearest town to withdraw the government cash, and had no means of accessing the government funds online, so she quickly found herself without any food left at home.
Distraught, Bai ended up on the doorstep of Ombati Prajapati, who runs a digital services shop in her village. “She was the only one who would help me.”
“It is only because of the internet that I am able to see what is happening and tell others that they should regularly wash their hands with soap, use sanitizer, wear masks,” said Prajapati, 27. “I would not have been able to help any of these people [if I had not learned how to use the internet]. I would not have been able to even help myself.”
Osama Manzar, a social entrepreneur and DEF’s founder, says that their work training women like Prajapati has shown how important it is to have digital infrastructure available to the last mile — especially during a disaster.
“Connectivity and access to the internet must be part of basic human rights. It must be considered, at the time of pandemic and disaster, just as you provide access to food or water, there must be a way to provide access to data,” Manzar said.
A problem for rich countries, too
More than four in 10 low-income households in America don’t have access to broadband services, according to research by Pew. And in the United Kingdom, 1.9 million households have no access to the internet, while tens of millions more are reliant on pay-as-you-go services to get online.
“Digital exclusion is, for a lot of people, just an extension of social exclusion that they’re facing, and poverty is definitely part of that.”
“I wasn’t coping at all. I was very lonely and depressed when lockdown first started, but since I’ve had the tablet … when I’m feeling lonely, I can talk to my grandchildren or my daughter. I’ve got contact with them constantly, because they’re always online.”
On May 1, Addison turned 60. She celebrated with her grandchildren over a video chat on her new iPad — the same iPad she now uses to check her benefits portal. And she’s recently signed up for a dating site too. “I feel like a teenager,” she said.
But, as governments try to roll out digital services to the neediest, the question remains: Who gets a device and who doesn’t?
“That device isn’t just about immediate support during Covid, but it’s about opening up the gateway, for parents and for families, to aspirations and opportunities,” Shaikh said. There are currently 1,500 others on the waiting list.
“The biggest challenge is, who do I choose?”
CNN’s Swati Gupta and Jack Guy contributed to this report.