OPINIONS Addressing the digital divide in the pandemic era


Addressing the digital divide in the pandemic era


12:09, April 29, 2022

Photos: CFP

Editor's note: John Gong is a professor at the University of International Business and Economics and a research fellow at the Academy of China Open Economy Studies at UIBE. The article reflects the author's views and not necessarily those of CGTN.

The digital divide normally refers to the gap between people who have access to affordable and reliable digital services and are called "information haves," and those who lack it and are called "information have-nots." In this day and age, the primary means of digital access is the mobile handset.

In many developing countries, particularly least developed countries, the digital divide is all about the affordability issue. However, in China, the cheap mobile handset can be acquired for less than 1,000 yuan (about $150), which is affordable for almost everyone.

The digital divide manifests in another form in that the affordability issue gives way to the skillset issue. That is, we still have a sizable elderly population who have never laid their hands on a mobile handset or are deterred from touching the gadget, even though in all honesty it is not that difficult to fiddle with a mobile handset in my view.

But I am not old. Elderly people may be different. My mom still doesn't own a handset, while my dad sends me tons of messages every day on WeChat, a Chinese instant messaging app.

We will all have a day when we are old, and maybe one day I will end up more like my mom than my dad. Normally that is only an inconvenience for personal daily life. But today we live in an era that is anything but normal – we are fighting a vicious virus that has wreaked havoc for two years.

In China, we have developed probably the most sophisticated technologies to contain this pathogen transmission, a strategy which arguably relies heavily on the platform of a handset. Several applications exist on every handset these days as a part of the technology suite developed by the government and other social organizations to help make the anti-pandemic measures more effective and efficient.

One needs the health code to enter many public places. Getting onto a train or plane needs a green health code. The epidemic prevention needs your phone information for contact tracing. So does vaccination and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. The list goes on and on.

I cannot imagine how anyone could possibly get around without a handset today. And yet we have tens of millions of elderly people just like my mom. How can they possibly get around and live with dignity is a mind-boggling question that I don't have a good answer for.

In China there are about 180 million people older than 65 years, which is about 13 percent of our total population. That is not an insignificant number. I bet many people in that group don't always carry a handset.

This begs the question of how to help these people. The government will certainly try to implement pandemic measures that exist outside of the digital domain. That is very considerate and laudable. But it is also a good opportunity to bridge the digital divide by helping these people to dabble into the fun and utility of smartphones and the internet.

What are some of the possible recommendations? One possible solution is for the government to incentivize mobile carriers to help the elderly via subsidies and tax reduction. How about giving China Mobile and other carriers a small tax rebate for every handset sold to a phone number that is associated with a person aged 70 years or older?

I remember a few years ago the government conducted a policy called "Home Appliance Going to the Countryside." Rural consumers got financial subsidies for the household electrical appliances they purchased. Can we do "Mobile Handset Going to the Elderly?" I am sure the people working at the Ministry of Finance can think of more ingenious ways to give the elderly a helping hand than I can.

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