UN agency urges LatAm to guarantee universal internet access to overcome COVID-19 impact

Latin American countries should guarantee universal access to the internet to counter the negative impacts of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, especially on education and equality, a United Nations agency said on Wednesday.

The UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), based in Santiago, Chile, is recommending countries provide a “basic basket of Information and Communications Technologies for all households,” estimating the initiative would cost less than 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Such a basket would include a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet and a connection plan for households that are not connected, ECLAC Executive Secretary Alicia Barcena told reporters at a press conference presenting the agency’s latest special report on the effects of the pandemic.

Called “Universalizing access to digital technologies to address the consequences of COVID-19,” the report highlights the way digital technologies have allowed economies and societies to keep functioning during the health crisis.

“The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have taken measures to encourage the use of technological solutions and to ensure the continuity of telecommunications services. However, the scope of these actions is limited by gaps in access to and use of these technologies and by connection speeds,” Barcena said.

According to the report, in 2019, 66.7 percent of the region’s inhabitants had an internet connection, while the remaining third had limited or no access to digital technologies.

“Differences in connectivity between urban and rural areas are significant,” with 67 percent of urban households connected to the internet versus only 23 percent in rural areas in the region.

Meanwhile, the reliance on these technologies has deepened due to the pandemic.

“Between the first and second quarters of 2020, the use of teleworking solutions surged by 324 percent while distance education rose more than 60 percent,” the report notes.

However, “in Latin America 46 percent of children between 5 and 12 years of age live in households that have no connectivity,” it adds.

The disparity in connectivity “between the highest and lowest economic strata affects the right to education and deepens socioeconomic inequalities,” said ECLAC, calling for improved connectivity and digital infrastructure.