2020 was a roller-coaster ride for most of us, but at the time, we thought 2021 would be better. However, if your definition of “better” in this scenario is similar to mine, then you too would know that things are definitely far away from being “better”. The COVID-19 pandemic changed our lifestyles, economies, society and gave rise to a series of issues we never thought existed in the first place. We are now studying, shopping, and even partying via online platforms. Parents and teachers who were constantly lecturing children to avoid being constantly active on the internet before the pandemic are now encouraging them to do the very thing they once advised their kids against.
Zoom Video Communications Inc., the video conferencing software which rose to immense popularity during the first half of 2020, saw its shares spike by 20 % in after-hours. Zoom was one of the fastest-growing apps during the pandemic, with meeting participants increasing by 2900 %. Not only video conferencing applications such as zoom, but streaming services like Netflix and Disney Plus, delivery services like Amazon, Uber eats, and Pick Me showed a massive rise in overall usage locally as well as globally. Of course, we missed some important landmark events of our lives, the vacations we were supposed to take, the events we were supposed to participate in, the occasional shopping sprees, the sensation of being in the dead center of the hustle and bustle of the busy streets of Colombo and the jam-packed busses, but life happened and still happens. Most of us are able to enjoy the luxuries of modern technology in the comfort of our own houses, but it is not the same for all Sri Lankans. Thanks to years of colonization, of unstable economics and treacherous politics, we are still a developing third-world country. Thus, forget about Netflix, think of how many people had to give up their education or work due to the difficulties associated with online access during the pandemic.
As of 2021, the internet penetration rate of Sri Lanka is 51% which is a rapid increase from the rate of 2019 which stood at around 34.1%. This shows that pandemic did result in more people accessing cyberspace, however, the issue of the availability of devices, uninterrupted connection services, and access to cyberspace still remains. The digital divide, defined as the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and communications technology, and those that don’t, is a serious issue in Sri Lanka. It gets addressed on a large scale once in a while but a proper solution is yet to come. When compared to all others, students face more problems in the pandemic due to the digital divide. In a country where people have the privilege of free education, being unable to access it in times of crisis can leave a massive number of students behind in terms of education. In general, 20% of poor children in Sri Lanka drop out of formal education after the age of fourteen and we can only assume that the situation must have worsened during the pandemic. In a context where most families are struggling to put food on the table, it is no surprise that COVID-19 has made the poor, poorer. The pandemic is, in short, a nightmare for most of us. We often tend to get frustrated due to the stress caused by online education and the monotonous lifestyle, but there can be a student in the rural areas of Sri Lanka dreaming about our nightmares, willing to befriend our night terrors.
The geographical differences are a cause for this digital divide as well. In Sri Lanka, most resources are centered around the main cities. Be it health, education, entertainment, or even access to essential day-to-day goods and services. In the viewpoint of a stranger, this can be a form of direct discrimination and inequality. An issue that was immensely highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other than the inability to afford devices or data to access online education, the absence of network coverage evenly across the island happens to be a serious issue as well. Most network companies have enormous marketing budgets and spend millions on advertising but in terms of infrastructure, they have a lot of catching up to do. The AfterAcess Asia Report 3.0 published by the information and communication technology policy and regulation think-tank LIRNEasia reveals that only 21% of rural Sri Lankan households with children under 18 years of age have access to some sort of internet connection. Due to these challenges, most students are unable to make any progress. However, in the eyes of some individuals, the digital divide being geographical is a myth as there is no big difference between the urban poor and the rural poor. Most people have access to mobile phones, smartphones in particular, however, it is quite difficult to engage in educational activities without high-quality devices or proper internet access. In the long run, these children will grow older to suffer from a vast lack of opportunities created by their incompetence in navigating through a digitalized world. Education is a basic right, and in this competitive world, no child should be left behind.
Bridging this gap is not as easy as it seems and cannot be done overnight. Our society and economy are designed in a way in which it is difficult to implement change. Many officials fail to walk the talk. Priority should be given for every student to access high-quality education irrespective of their social background, race, ethnicity, or where they live. Having free education itself will not make education inclusive or equitable. The authorities and internet providers should at least learn their lesson from this pandemic and work on providing necessary services and infrastructure. If Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was constructed today, the internet will definitely be considered a basic need. Authorities should accelerate the implementation of 4G or fiber broadband facilities across the country, and provide internet facilities to all schools, and TV sets to schools in areas with limited resources or without any IT facilities. As a country, we should keep up with the rapidly changing technologies and digitalization and always keep our educational curriculums updated. There are initiatives once in a while to supply loans in order to buy laptops or provide tablets and so on, but the lack of consistency in them is a factor hindering development.
At the end of the day, I believe there is no point in initiatives or investments if anyone on the island cannot get equal benefits from it. Most people are aware of these issues relating to the digital divide, we see them almost on a daily basis on social media and other forms of media but we rarely see results. The digital divide isn’t something exotic to Sri Lanka either, even U.S.A being a first-world country, faces it to a certain extent as well. But if we as a country are to move forward with the rest of the world, bridging the gap to bring about digital inclusivity should be one of our top priorities.
– Rtr Kavindi Gunawardena
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