Coronavirus exposes digital divide and risks increasing inequalities in Ukraine

April 13, 2020

Photo credit: Anton Kuba / UNDP Ukraine

The outbreak of the COVID-19 disease has starkly laid bare Ukraine’s digital divide and risks of widening inequalities.

While remote working – made possible if not convenient by modern technologies like video conferencing apps and broadband internet connections – is feasible for office workers, many jobs cannot easily be moved online.

Under lockdown, a great number of people in Ukraine have been struggling to adapt to the new challenges, either due to a lack of digital skills or simply because they have limited access to the internet. 

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing institutions, businesses and individuals to come to grips with digital technology fast. But those who cannot keep up with the new way of doing business risk being left behind. 

A glance at online data is informative: internet searches related to working online have seen significant growth in the past two weeks. 

The Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce has estimated that more than half a million people are unemployed due to the quarantine. How many of them have all they need to start working from home? 

Filling the gap

The UNDP Accelerator Lab in Ukraine earlier explored the issue of the digital divide in Ukraine, and in particular the  digital literacy of the elderly – those who are now even more vulnerable due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not only because of health concerns but also because of the rapid move to digitalization for almost all life exigencies: doing business, connecting with your family, processing your paperwork, paying your bills, shopping, and more.

The problem of the digital divide is complex, but Ukrainian society is responding rapidly. We have seen a large number of free digital services emerging and quite a few opportunities that address the digital gap, including a collection of resources and tips on how to work from home, a free course on cyber-hygiene  to teach people how to protect themselves  from cyber-criminals, and a new rapidly developed courses by the Ministry of Digital Transformation for public servants and teachers.

We at UNDP, together with our local partners, are now also developing an online course for civil servants on how to perform their functions remotely – providing them with useful practical knowledge covering various aspects, including legal, organizational, technical and psychological.

We also moved all our training sessions, business courses and working meetings online, and helped national legal aid centres purchase licences for secure video conferencing services to ensure their business continuity.

While these initiatives are invaluable, timely and providing skilled people with the tools and capabilities to immediately switch to a new way of working, they are heavily contingent on digital literacy. But what about those who are not skilled enough to resort to such solutions, or not equipped with the basic instruments needed for such solutions? Does every household have a computer, a tablet or a smart phone? Is every household in Ukraine connected to the internet?

A move to more digital working is inevitable and is already happening for the majority. Nevertheless, access to technology and connectivity remains an obstacle for many communities in Ukraine. For instance, we hear stories from small villages where public servants are working in shifts during the quarantine because “there are too many documents that we cannot take home.”

In rural schools, the teaching process has been discontinued because of poor connectivity and the absence of access to gadgets among the most vulnerable and poor, or because a community near the conflict’s “contact line” in eastern Ukraine cannot afford some US $180 for high-speed internet and hence is not able to benefit from the initiatives mentioned above. These are all symptoms of the digital divide, and they will require coordinated, whole-of-society responses in order to prevent a new digital strain of inequality from spreading in our societies. 

Moreover, an important aspect of the resilience of people in overcoming the digital divide in times of crisis is their individual response to the crisis itself. Is everyone able to overcome their anxiety and stress and focus on studying or working? There is rising concern about psychological well-being and the impact of isolation on mental health. With work, education, communication and daily life activities, including physical exercises, moving to an online mode, how do we handle the balance between virtual reality and our actual lives? It is critical that we reflect on our life priorities, give ourselves a break, and acknowledge that we are in the middle of a crisis. In such a situation, some will manage better than others, due to their individual characteristics and previous life experiences, while others could lack focus and go into “panic-work” mode, which eventually leads to burnout. 

Digital solutions

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the issue of digitization one of national security, as it clearly has an impact on how a modern state now functions. UNDP is mobilizing its partner network in calls for action in the following areas: resources to help stop the spread of the virus, support to respond during the outbreak itself, and resources to prevent the economic collapse of developing countries. For all the areas, digital solutions are being very carefully looked at, as they have the potential to address needs without the risk of spreading the disease. And while addressing these needs from a digital lens, UNDP is always cognisant of an all-inclusive solution where “No One is Left Behind.”

In a situation where the COVID-19 pandemic is causing global disruption, one of Ukraine’s policy approaches will be to shift towards more digitalization, and fewer person-to-person contacts, where possible. Hence, UNDP Ukraine is also addressing the issue of the digital divide as part of its programmatic response to the health crisis, and in its support to the government of Ukraine. Our priority is to ensure Ukrainians can have an inclusive and accessible digital life. As a rapid response, we have streamlined information about digital learning opportunities that have been made available globally, and are calling for proposals to counter the impacts of COVID-19, with a focus on vulnerable groups.  Strategically, we are reconsidering where digital literacy and “the state in a smartphone” should be placed within the policy framework – is it now a part of the national resilience system? 

Rise to the challenge!

Additionally, UNDP Ukraine is a core partner in a flagship digital event of the government of Ukraine – the #HackCorona Challenge, which will engage IT experts, civic activists, start-ups, journalists in developing IT-projects that make life easier for citizens and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stemming from our strong belief in people’s capabilities, and from our motto urging development practitioners to “Listen to, Learn from and Leverage” local solutions developed by communities, UNDP Ukraine is also mapping innovative interventions for social solidarity to fight the coronavirus crisis in the Ukrainian regions, ranging from production of 3D materials for personal protection gear, to awareness raising, from community support to the elderly and persons with disabilities, to supporting local SMEs and vulnerable groups, ensuring they have better access to digital administrative and social services.

Only when we put in place an integrated approach to crisis management, we can ensure that our solutions are addressing the needs of all people, in all walks of life. Coupling digital solutions with compassion, understanding and respecting individual circumstances and characteristics and a high level of social solidarity is bound to lead to impactful results.

Ukrainians’ creativity never ceases to amaze us, and we are now relying on it more than ever to solve the most pressing problems Ukraine now faces! We are working together with the Ministry of Digital Transformation to ensure that amid the rapid digitalization that we are experiencing now, essential cybersecurity, personal data protection, and internet accessibility for the most vulnerable are not forgotten.

And maybe Ukraine will locally produce a solution to this globally challenging situation!