The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant socioeconomic impact across the globe. To prevent the spread of infections, governments are implementing emergency measures, such as physical distancing and lockdowns, with some countries encouraging cashless transfers. Individuals, organisations and institutions are now leveraging internet connectivity and digital technologies for work, education, commerce and entertainment.
However, for the privileged few with home internet service, this has not been designed for heavy usage, such as multiple live streaming connections and applications, which has resulted in a depreciation in quality of service. Slower speeds and internet outages are some of the effects of the sudden upsurge in internet uptake and digital platforms are straining the existing infrastructure capacity. For the economically and socially disadvantaged who are unable to access and use the internet, the impact goes beyond livelihoods to accessing critical information on the pandemic such as health and social connections.
This article seeks to examine the extent to which national and regional responses to the COVID-19 pandemic may have impacted on the regime of human rights online. The article also examines the widening digital divide and the role that telecommunication policy and regulatory frameworks play in closing this gap. The article is informed by two preliminary observations. First, regional state and non-state actors predominantly view the pandemic through clinical lenses, while largely projecting its current and anticipated impact in public health and socioeconomic terms. Second, the responses have been state-centred, resulting in widening the digital divide and violating digital rights, such as the right to information and freedom of expression.
This article also discusses inequalities online and offline that have become apparent from the shift to online spaces, especially for work and education. Specifically, it will consider how this is impacted by the digital divide and the potential capacity of community networks in Africa to provide access during and beyond COVID-19. The article then discusses the importance of bottom-up approaches to fighting the pandemic and the role of community and community-based organisations such as community networks, radios and health centres.