Inequality of What?: Digital Inequality under Covid-19

Dr Yingqin Zheng | Senior Lecturer | School of Business Management, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Prof Geoff Walsham | Emeritus Professor | Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

*This blog is based on our short paper to be published in the journal Information and Organization.

The covid-19 pandemic has thrown a spotlight on deep seated inequalities across different societies. Under the pandemic, existing socio-technical discrepancies are magnified, and diverse forms of exclusion, marginalisation and vulnerabilities emerge. The prevalent notions of ‘digital divide’ or ‘digital inclusion’ tend to focus on the division between the ‘haves and have-nots’, and less attention is paid to the structural positioning of actors within the intersectionality of multiple “systems of power”. Extending on our previous discussion on social exclusion – “inequality of what”, we ask again: what do we talk about when we talk about digital inequality? In this blog we review the emerging evidence from Covid-19 observations and explore how digital technology is entangled in multiple fracture lines of social division, including but not limited to gender, race, education level, and geographical boundaries.

Digital inequality is rooted in deep-seated, existing structural inequalities. For example, while digital education has leapfrogged in response to school closures in most countries, vulnerable students on the wrong side of the digital divide are further disadvantaged, especially those living in poverty and with disabilities. Furthermore, schools often serve as a source of health, nutrition and social support for those from under privileged socio-economic classes. Even when some countries have provided free laptops for disadvantaged students, these students are still negatively impacted in terms of well-being and mental health. Similarly, cashless payment and the health-tracking apps implemented under Covid-19 could have excluding effects on the elderly and some low-income groups who may not own or have the knowhow to use a smart phone, and may be rejected to board public transport or enter a venue. In other words, digital inequality has roots in social disparities, digital connectivity is not automatically a remedy and could even exacerbate social exclusion.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers have been significantly impacted by lockdown measures and/or working in the hardest-hit sectors. Among digital workers, platform gig workers were among the worst hit by the pandemic, with almost 70% losing their income, over half losing their jobs and more than a quarter seeing their hours cut. While gig work offers flexibility, the lack of unemployment benefits and sick pay entails significant vulnerabilities for workers. However, only 5 out of 120 platform companies have introduced some form of coronavirus financial assistance. In the Global South, gig workers have received hardly any financial support from either governments or platform companies.

Digital inequality is often gendered. For example 300 million fewer women than men use mobile internet across the globe. This digital gap has further undermined women’s capability to adapt to adversity under the pandemic, both in terms of work and household labour. Based on data from 104 countries, 67% of health workers are women. In addition, women bear greater responsibility than men in taking care of the family and household during the pandemic (e.g. extra housework, home schooling, caring for the elderly and the ill) thus further undermining women’s earnings.

However, the experiences of women under covid-19 are divergent depending on their different socio-economic status and their surrounding social and cultural norms. Women in disadvantaged groups carry the double burden of wage-earning and caring for family members, yet they are also more likely to have lower digital capacity to find relevant information about the pandemic, to support home schooling for their
children, or even to fill in online application forms for economic relief.

Further ‘invisible’ gender inequality is reflected in the ‘male gaze’ from digital surveillance, as Yu (2020) discusses in the context of China’s track and trace system. During a cluster outbreak in northern China, the identity of a young woman was revealed in media reports and her private information further exposed by netizens, because a speculative affair between her and a neighbour was suspected to have triggered the cluster outbreak. In this imaginary ‘love story’, she was described as ‘pretty’, ‘unemployed’, but ‘rich’, and accused of cheating on her boyfriend with the neighbour; later the neighbour was revealed to be a woman as well – at which point the plot turned into a lesbian relationship. In fact, the two did not even know each other and the transmission of the virus was likely to have occurred in an elevator. Thus, even with an assumption that the technology was not designed to discriminate, gendered discourses, social norms and power systems that value monitoring and control over individual integrity and wellbeing are inevitably entangled in the enactment of surveillance systems, and in this case, interact with intersectional identities to produce oppressive social consequences.

So what do we talk about when we talk about digital inequality? The pandemic may bring out new instantiations and shed light on what was less visible before, but the roots of inequalities are deeply entrenched in systems of power and social orders. The examples above reveal the complexity and intersectionality of digital inequality which occurs not along one singular axis of power but along multiple fracture lines and differences. As digital researchers, we need to examine digital technology not only as ‘solutions’ and ‘innovations’, but also how it is intertwined and implicated in producing and reproducing social orders and stratifications.

Dr. Yingqin Zheng is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Business and Management, RHUL

Prof. Geoff Walsham is Emeritus Professor at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

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