When the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic in March 2020, slightly more than half of the world’s citizens had access to the internet. Connectivity allowed many people to work, receive services, and socialize without physical contact—a key factor in limiting the virus’s spread. Did people with internet access, then, benefit from reduced exposure to COVID-19?
The Digital Development Global Practice of the World Bank and the University of Greenwich looked into the question. We conducted research to find out how access to the internet and variety in speed affected adherence to pandemic-related movement restrictions in three Latin American countries: Colombia, Ecuador, and El Salvador.
Why does this matter? Access to the internet alone is not enough to unlock the benefits of digital technologies. For instance, many online public services offered during the pandemic could only be leveraged if users had access to an affordable, reliable and fast connection. While these are all important features, in this case we focused our analysis specifically on internet speed.
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This research indicates that policymakers and private actors should not only focus on providing internet access, but also on factors such as reliability, affordability, and speed, which are important elements to bring more equitable impacts to vulnerable communities.
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The world needs a digital lifeline
In periods of crisis, digital technologies provide a lifeline that keeps people, communities, and businesses functioning. From the COVID-19 pandemic to violent conflicts and natural disasters, being connected has allowed us to continue working, learning, and communicating.
How policymakers have responded to these emergencies has played a large part. In particular, as a new paper by the World Bank Group’s Development Committee shows, more agile regulation has accelerated digitalization and unleashed innovation. In today’s global context of several overlapping crises, this needs to become the norm. Secure and resilient internet infrastructure is a fundamental necessity.