• Billions of people are going online to stay in touch during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • But almost half of the world’s population has no access to the internet.
  • Fewer than 1 in 5 people in the least developed countries are connected.
  • This digital divide impacts women more than men.

From schools setting coursework online to office staff working from home, the internet is the answer to many coronavirus lockdown problems. But what about the billions of people who can't get online?

Among the many inequalities exposed by COVID-19, the digital divide is not only one of the most stark, but also among the most surprising. Even in developed countries, internet access is often lower than you might think.

Take the United States for example. More than 6% of the population (21 million people) have no high-speed connection. In Australia, the figure is 13%. Even in the world's richest countries, the web can't keep everyone connected.

Globally, only just over half of households (55%) have an internet connection, according to UNESCO. In the developed world, 87% are connected compared with 47% in developing nations, and just 19% in the least developed countries.

connectivity internet access broadband broadwidth data wifi signal Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
How broadband subscriptions have grown in the past two decades.
Image: Our World in Data

Offline world

In total, 3.7 billion people have no internet access. The majority are in poorer countries, where the need to spread information about how to combat COVID-19 is most urgent. Migrants and the poorest are most vulnerable to the virus, says the World Health Organization (WHO).

More than one billion children across the globe are currently locked out of classrooms because of quarantine measures. No matter that teachers are running daily online classes – many of these children simply cannot take part.

Working from home is only a reality for service sector workers and administrators. But, as figures show, not all of them will be able to connect. Even then, they may find that their connectivity is affected by the sheer volume of people using the web.

US-based M-Labs, which monitors global internet speeds, says that in spite of reassurances from internet service providers that networks are coping with the extra load, broadband speeds have been slowing in some areas.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

America’s unconnected millions

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says that estimates of the number of Americans without internet access may be understated. A 2017 Congress report said 12 million American children were growing up in homes that had no internet connection.

Microsoft President Brad Smith has pointed out that 19 million unconnected households in America are in rural areas. Research for the company’s rural internet project Airband suggests more than 157 million Americans don’t use the internet at broadband speeds.

“Without a proper broadband connection, these communities can’t start or run a modern business, access telemedicine, take an online class, digitally transform their farm or research a school project online,” says Smith.

UNESCO and the ITU’s Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development set a target of connecting 75% of the world’s population to fast internet via cable or wireless by 2025. Although uptake of mobile technology is rising in the developing world, the costs of mobile internet are higher.

Africa’s expensive data

In sub-Saharan Africa, one gigabit (GB) of data - enough to stream a standard-definition film for one hour - costs nearly 40% of the average monthly wage.

According to the World Bank, 85% of Africans live on less than $5.50 a day. Small wonder, then, that most find themselves cut off by the digital divide. And it’s not just a problem in developing nations. In Australia, almost a third of less well-off homes have no internet connection.

South Africa has made access to its COVID-19 website free of charge, with no data or airtime required, and local broadband provider Telkom has done the same for educational websites and sites providing coronavirus updates, such as the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

But free access or not, UNESCO says that there remains a significant digital gender divide. Across 10 countries in Africa, Asia and South America, women are 30-50% less likely than men to use the internet to participate in public life. Globally, women are 23% less likely than men to use mobile internet. The gap is widest in South Asia, followed by sub-Saharan Africa.