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COVID-19 Widens the Digital Divide in Latin America

Latin Americans are more connected than ever before, yet a sharp divide remains between those with and without internet access. The spread of COVID-19 has only deepened this divide, as governments across the region impose quarantine measures on their citizens. For communities without internet access, strict stay-at-home orders have cut off much of their communication with the outside world and made it more difficult to access up-to-date public health information and express citizens’ concerns.

With nearly 70 percent of its population connected to the internet and the world’s second-fastest-growing mobile phone market, Latin America is quickly becoming one of the most connected regions of the developing world. However, many groups living in rural, indigenous and low-income communities lack the same level of access as their urban counterparts for a variety of reasons, including a lack of infrastructure, high broadband costs and language barriers.

The COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated this divide. As the world becomes more and more dependent on digital platforms to connect and share information, those with limited or no internet access are being left behind. While residents of tech hubs like Bogotá and Santiago have been able to shift to remote learning, telework and online activism, many rural communities have been forced to shut down entirely. As a recent UN report demonstrates, this lack of connectivity poses both an economic and public health risk, as unconnected communities lose access to remote healthcare and critical public health information at a time of critical need.

With travel restricted and large gatherings banned in many countries, those without internet access have lost the ability to connect with their governments and engage in community advocacy. This lack of engagement poses a serious threat to democracy in Latin America, as rural voices go unheard by those in power. While many Latin American governments have made real efforts to increase connectivity in rural areas, other solutions are needed to bridge their digital divide.

IRI Connects

Working with partners across the region, IRI has turned to a more traditional form of communication to keep rural communities connected: radio. Unlike broadband internet, which requires extensive infrastructure and can be cost-prohibitive for low-income populations, radio programs can reach rural areas using inexpensive and preexisting channels of communication.

In Panama, for example, less than 30 percent of rural residents have regular internet access, compared to more than 60 percent of urban dwellers. IRI partner Commission for Justice and Peace (CJP) uses radio programs to ensure that Panama’s remote communities remain connected, even during a national quarantine.

Broadcast biweekly over Radio María, a local Panamanian station, CJP’s radio program educates rural communities on their new rights and responsibilities under Panama’s Decentralization Law. The law aims to empower rural and indigenous communities by redistributing local property taxes back to municipal governments, giving them the resources needed to reinvest in their communities at a local level.

Radio may seem outdated in the era of 5G and microtargeting, but it has allowed IRI partners to connect with countless citizens who would otherwise be left out of their countries’ democratic processes. Such innovative solutions have been critical to ensuring all citizens’ voices are heard and remain more important than ever in closing Latin America’s digital divide – especially during the current public health crisis.