Written by Momina Sahar
While one of the most promising and appealing steps taken by the government of Pakistan was the digitization of government services during the unprecedented times of a global pandemic, the uncritical embrace of technology for dissemination of information and services along with the lack of availability of digital services in certain areas of Pakistan creates a hierarchy in terms of access to information. Disparate access to the internet is a multilateral issue, the causes for which stem from various reasons such as infrastructure unavailability, gender disparity, and the economic and digital literacy divide.
As pointed out by the Digital Rights Foundation, “Internet access in Pakistan stands at around 35 percent, with 78 million broadband and 76 million mobile internet (3/4G) connections. According to the Inclusive Internet Index 2019, Pakistan fell into the last quartile of index countries, ranking 76 out of a 100; particularly low on indicators pertaining to affordability.” The Minister of Information Technology Aminul Haque informed the public that 35 percent of Pakistan lacks internet infrastructure. These figures lead to easy identification of the digital divide, as out of an overall population of 193 million people, only 32 million are internet users. This information points out that roughly 161 million people in Pakistan cannot access the online services provided by the government, from the citizen portal for the registration of complaints to the official government website regarding information on COVID-19.
The divide isn’t entirely infrastructural. It is also due to differences in gender as in most areas of the country the use of digital services is divided along gender lines. In Pakistan, the digital gender divide is among the highest in the world. A participant in a study from Muzaffargarh district in rural Pakistan said, “May women don’t even know how to dial a number.”
Similarly, rural areas of Pakistan have much less access to digital services than urban areas. In an interview, one of the accountaprenuers of the Lab’s “Accountability Incubator Program” from district Bajaur talked about the difficulties in accessing basic information during the pandemic. He pointed out that the journalists in the area are unable to fight misinformation as there is little to no awareness regarding the official information being disseminated by the government.
In a situation like this where a major portion of the population is unable to access and/or navigate through digital media, the digitalization of the government services available causes the further marginalization of the vulnerable population. Most of the government utilities are being offered online such as bill payments etc. Those who rely on physical means of cash transfer such as Easypaisa are unable to access the facilities due to the lockdown and closure of banks, shops, and government offices.
Additionally, the information regarding government facilities available is being shared through mobile applications such as WhatsApp that require an internet connection along with details about the spread, control, and treatment of the virus, and the distribution of rations. Due to this, the most marginalized are bound to be left behind.
More importantly, the current vaccination campaign relies heavily on the usage of mobile phones. The process of registration for the vaccination includes sending a message to the government helpline number. Although the process is quite simple and uncomplicated and considering that 75 percent of the population of Pakistan does own a mobile phone of some type, the primary information regarding what number to text and what is to be texted is communicated and disseminated largely online and on social media platforms. However, it also has to be taken into account that according to a report published by the datareportal in 2020, only 17 percent out of the total population uses some sort of social media platform which indicates that the digital gap remains extensive and is a contributing factor to the slow rate of the process of vaccination in Pakistan.
This difference in access to information throughout Pakistan has also affected many small businesses during the time of the pandemic in an adverse manner. A major portion of information regarding the current number of cases in a respective area, timings of the lockdown period, and new advancements or policies in the time of COVID-19 were also available largely on the internet. Consequently, many citizens running small businesses were uneducated as to during what days and times they were allowed to run their businesses and shops, which caused most of these small-scale businesses to completely shut down. Additionally, the ease of flow of information in the age of the internet is often two-way, but the current situation in Pakistan leads to the stories and voices of people regarding the impact of COVID-19 being subdued and in most cases never reaching the mainstream media.
The digital revolution in a developing country like Pakistan is undoubtedly a time-consuming process, although the rate is accelerating immensely in the current time. Nevertheless, until a time is reached where the digital gap is minimized as much as possible, the concerns of the marginalized communities cannot be overlooked. A few of the possible solutions to the problem could be making the availability of the internet a basic human necessity, and trying to help reach the far-flung areas of Pakistan by encouraging religious leaders to spread the information regarding COVID-19 during sermons and speeches and local authorities to issue clear guidelines locally, in the meantime, to minimize the spread of misinformation and to educate the general public on basic operating procedures in times like these