COVID-19 and the “Digital Divide”

April 4th, 2020

We are supposedly “on lockdown” at this time. Nevertheless, with businesses and schools closing, we are turning inwards, and many have obeyed the instruction to “Tan Ah Yuh Yaad” (stay home). Many have not, but that’s a different matter. There is so little for them at home.

Now, this is where social divides are highlighted. That includes the “digital divide.”

In uptown Kingston and the better-off parts of the island, children are learning and amusing themselves on computers and tablets. There is a range of educational programs on offer, through the Ministry of Education and from private companies. There is an even wider range of fun activities and games for all ages, available online – some free, some at a cost. There are digital classrooms, live streams, science experiments you can do at home. There is no end to it. Many of these better-off Jamaicans are steadily working their way through all the Netflix series that they had missed. Connectivity makes this stressful time more bearable.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California has a wonderful free science curriculum online.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California has a wonderful free science curriculum online.

In the same uptown/higher-income household, adults are joining Zoom business meetings and enjoying virtual sports. They enjoy online yoga classes and wellness chats. They are staying home, ordering online and getting food delivered to their door. Family and neighborhood WhatsApp groups are flourishing. We keep in touch with family overseas via video chats. We do our financial transactions and pay our bills, online. No problem.

And yet, there are large swathes of the country that enjoy no such thing; in particular, the poorer households, inner city neighborhoods and rural areas. How many have wifi in their homes? How many have a computer or tablet at home? How many even have a regular electricity supply? How many can “Netflix and chill”? There is a yawning gap between city and country, rich and poor. Smartphones have certainly helped to bridge that gap somewhat, but they would still be a luxury to many. I am not sure of the numbers, but know that the gap is real. At this time, many people will depend on the radio, “town criers” and little else for their information on this creeping pandemic.


Even for those who do have access to computers, for example educational institutions, I wonder whether they have regular and reliable Internet service. Across most of the country there is very little competition, if any. This results in poor service for many. I have heard so many times that rural schools with computer labs have “Internet problems.” A computer is of very limited use (especially in education) without an Internet connection. I know of one residential children’s home (with a computer lab generously donated by the private sector) that is currently unable to provide online education for at-risk youth during this difficult time, because of this issue. This is a downright shame. This may not be the only such case. Step up, Internet suppliers! Surely you can do better.

There is no doubt that – as in times of crisis – the inequalities of society are shown up. The poor always suffer disproportionately in times of disaster. It’s an oft-repeated, but undisputed fact.

Have we even considered the concept of digital rights in Jamaica? In the year 2020, the year of COVID-19, why is connectivity only a right for some (one that we can barely live without, at the moment) – and not for all? Wouldn’t this be a relatively easy fix?

Access to broadband should not be a luxury to be enjoyed by the elite. Although we have made great strides in this area, I feel there is a long way to go. Perhaps this is another lesson to be learned from COVID-19.

Footnote: Thanks to my good friends on Twitter, I have received data slides showing the following [source:]:

  • There were 1.63 million internet users in Jamaica in January 2020.
  • The number of internet users in Jamaica increased by 8,070 (+0.5 per cent) between 2019 and 2020.
  • Internet penetration in Jamaica stood at 55 per cent in January 2020.
  • Social media penetration in Jamaica stood at 44 per cent in January 2020.
  • There were 3.28 million mobile connections in Jamaica in January 2020 [111 per cent of the total population].
  • The number of mobile connections in Jamaica increased by 3.1 per cent between January 2019 and January 2020.

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5 Responses to “COVID-19 and the “Digital Divide””

  1. Winnie Anderson-Brown says:

    Interesting article. We had unlimited access to the Internet courtesy of Claro.
    We had modems that we bought and when Digicel bought Claro that was the end of our unlimited access or any Internet access for years.
    Our working Huawei modems were exchanged for a Nokia stick that didn’t work. We were mere pawns in the game played by Claro and Digicel.We have no one to champion our cause.

    Thanks to Elon Parkinson who and some other workers who go over and beyond to assist bring about a workable solution to our problems. I am still without unlimited access or reliable service.

  2. Dennis Jones says:

    Why discuss broadband (location specific & needing cables etc) as a standard, when WiFi (accessible over wide areas) is more what communities need? Providing community-wide WiFi makes more sense (usually at no user cost), as rolled out in Jamaica at places like the Half Way Tree Transport Centre and Devon House areas. Jamaican entities have been slow to roll out WiFi for customers, which could be done with the usual security features (passwords etc). Many major entities in other countries have seen the benefits of doing that (Starbucks, major retailers, etc). It’s a feature on many transport systems and was rolled out by JUTC during the past year. Cities like London, NYC, and others have many sectors covered by area-wide WiFi. Some efforts have famously failed (Philadelphia). Area-wide WiFi would solve most access problems in Jamaica. All school/college compounds should have WiFi. Many (if not most) households have smart/Internet capable devices (remittance barrels come loaded with them and they are now relatively cheap, especially used). That hardware aspect is the easiest to solve. The wireless infrastructure needs a good partnership between private enterprises & government, though the latter should be really about the regulatory needs than implementing infrastructure.

  3. EmmaLewis says:

    Yes, communities do specifically need WiFi. I was talking about the technology gap in general. My point is that all school compounds do NOT have WiFi, Dennis. I can name you some rural schools if you like. Also the children’s home I referred to (Sunbeam in Manchester) where at-risk abandoned boys live, some with special needs, has had no Internet since January. They have a nice computer lab opened last summer and donated by IGT Jamaica. They cannot do online classes (including the ones who normally go to school and come back in the evenings). Just one example. I don’t care about London and New York, really. Many/most households have Internet capable devices? According to DataReportal’s latest #Digital2020 report there were 1.63 million Internet users in Jamaica in January 2020, increasing by a few thousand over the previous year. Internet penetration is 55 per cent.Please see my friend Winnie’s comments here, a teacher from rural Clarendon. “I am still without unlimited access or reliable service.”

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