New Delhi: In the first three quarters of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a 30 per cent fall in electronic and electrical equipment sales in low and middle-income countries but only a five per cent decline in high-income countries. This highlights and intensifies the digital divide between north and south, said a new United Nations (UN) report on Wednesday.
Worldwide, sales of heavy electric appliances like refrigerators, washing machines and ovens fell the hardest - six to eight per cent - while small IT and telecommunications equipment decreased by only 1.4 per cent.
Within the latter category, sales of laptops, cell phones and gaming equipment rose in high-income countries and on a global basis but fell in low and middle-income countries.
The report by UN e-waste researchers predicts an overall 4.9 million metric tonne (Mt) fall in future 2020 sales-related e-waste, nearly 6.4 per cent less than a "business as usual" scenario.
"The Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on e-waste in the first three quarters of 2020," is published by the UN University's Sustainable Cycles Programme (SCYCLE), Bonn, and UNITAR, the United Nations' Institute for Training and Research, which recently established a presence in Bonn.
The global-level results run contrary to early expectations, says Kees Balde, a UN University Senior Programme Officer, who co-authored the report with UNU SCYCLE and UNITAR colleague, Ruediger Kuehr.
Home offices and schooling, online hangouts and shopping, movie streaming and other activities driven higher by COVID-19 lockdowns had many experts predicting a sizeable increase in electrical and electronic equipment consumption as well as an increase in e-waste disposal as people went house-cleaning and shopping to replace near broken electronic equipment.
Worldwide, however, all major categories of electronic and electrical equipment - screens and monitors, large equipment, temperature exchange equipment, small equipment, and lamps - decreased by six to eight per cent.
By weight the largest decrease in consumption was in the large equipment category, down by 1.7 Mt, followed by small equipment and lamps.
Impacts were largest in 2020's first and second quarters. Consumption rebounded in the third quarter in high-income countries, though not in low and middle-income countries.
"The so-called digital divide is increasing," says Kuehr. "The ability to adapt to digitisation and earn a living or simply to own and benefit from electronics is decreasing in some parts of the world. COVID-19 also revealed a digital divide in high-income countries where many poor are left behind."
A small silver lining is the reduction of e-waste flows, though likely temporary, he notes in regions where e-waste mismanagement leads to large environmental and health damage.
The report urges that nations use this breathing space to improve e-waste management.
Balde adds that COVID-19 has accentuated global inequality in other ways causing half a billion people to be underemployed or out of work, with women twice as detrimentally-affected as men.
And workers in low-income countries suffer most, losing 23 per cent of their working hours and causing social disasters, as people fall into debt, skip meals, and keep their children home from school.
Five countries and Hong Kong had complete datasets for analysis (China, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Maldives, India, and Pakistan), which showed a mildly fluctuating but upward trend in consumption from 2018 until the third quarter of 2019.
From the fourth quarter of 2019 through the first two quarters of 2020, consumption decreased while the third quarter of 2020 showed an increase.