[BigDataSur-COVID] COVID-19 in the UK: The Exacerbation of Inequality and a Digitally-Based Response

Authors: Massimo Ragnedda and Maria Laura Ruiu

The COVID-19 crisis has been shown to highlight existing forms of socio-economic inequality across the world’s Souths. This article illustrates the reinforcement of such inequalities in the United Kingdom, showing the heightened vulnerability of minorities and marginalised citizens and proposing a response based on tackling digital inequalities.

The consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak in social, economic, psychological and health terms, are still under evaluation as the effects of the containment measures could last for years. However, something seems to be quite clear: vulnerable people and vulnerable communities are those who suffer the most from this outbreak. This is not surprising, since both social and medical studies have repeatedly shown an interaction between social environment and health status.

In this article, we specifically focus on the UK (even though similar arguments could be applied to other countries in the Global North) where some social groups are suffering more than others from the outbreak. Black, Asian or minority ethnic background (BAME communities) and elderly and marginalized citizens are affected the most by the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has, indeed, triggered inequality by exposing more vulnerable groups to higher risks of experiencing the most severe symptoms of the disease.

BAME communities are the most affected in the UK

Despite the fact that there is no link between genetic predispositions to the virus and racial groups, BAME communities are the most affected in the UK. There are, indeed, several social factors that influence a higher frequency of death from coronavirus among vulnerable communities in the UK. First of all, BAME communities make up a large share of professions considered indispensable in tackling the virus. Many of these jobs are public-facing, so they are potentially more exposed to the virus. Secondly, on average, BAME groups in Western societies, due to longstanding social inequalities, suffer from generally worse health conditions. The link between socioeconomic factors and health status is well known. An emphasis on social aspects rather than a biological or genetic predisposition, underlines that the ways in which societies are organised tend to penalise already disadvantaged communities and citizens, therefore further reinforcing social inequalities.

Digital inequalities exacerbate social and health inequalities

There is also a third element, often under-evaluated, which highlights how socially discriminated people suffer the most from the COVID-19 pandemic: digital inequalities. COVID-19 outbreak has shown, among many other things, how digital skills, high-speed internet, and reliable hardware and software are essential conditions not only for social wellbeing, but also for everyday life. The digital divide, in fact, does not only include uneven access to resources and knowledge, but also limited human connections and unequal access to opportunities and health services. Being digitally excluded also affects the ability to manage the corona virus-related drawbacks. In a time where one-third of the world population is locked down, a exclusion from the digital arena also means a potential exclusion from essential online services, such as health services, e-learning, accurate and trustworthy information related to COVID-19 and purchase of essentials online. In a collective academic effort, we developed the COVID-19 exposure risk profiles (CERPs), which show that “All else equal, individuals who can more effectively digitize key parts of their lives enjoy better CERPs than individuals who cannot digitize these life realms”.

The digital divide is a real and thoughtful threat that requires tangible and future-proof solutions. This suggests that tackling inequalities not only means providing access to ICTs, but also skills and literacy to ensure an adequate digital experience. In the UK, for instance, 11.7 million people lack essential digital skills. This number suggests that 22% of the UK population have difficulty in accessing online information and updates about COVID-19. Both elderly people (especially from ethnic minorities) and people with disabilities tend to have limited capacity to access ICTs and an elementary digital competence. This suggests that self-isolation might be particularly challenging because the lack of access and skills contribute towards increasing loneliness by limiting people’s contact with relatives or friends.

Tackling digital inequalities to reduce COVID-19’s effects

Access to the Internet is a new civil right and a public utility. In this sense, bridging the digital divide means treating Internet access as an essential service. For this reason, during the COVID-19 pandemic, several public and private initiatives around the world were promoted to tackle the digital divide and support digitally excluded people. In the UK, for instance, some organisations such as “Future dot now UK” launched an initiative named #DevicesDotNow that provides digital devices to help the most vulnerable to access to the digital realm. The purpose of this initiative is to enable the digitally excluded to access online services, support and information needed during the pandemic. However, access alone is not enough to ensure the success of the digital experience. In a time where more than 11 million people in the UK lack digital skills, the possession of devices alone does not guarantee digital inclusion. For this reason, the Goodthing Foundation created a suite of resources to support the most vulnerable in using the Internet during the COVID-19 pandemic. These initiatives included a suite of resources to help people find trustworthy health advice from reliable sources or more practical advice such as how to use apps to call their doctors. Furthermore, the literature shows that giving the possibilities to keep in touch with family and friends to the most vulnerable people (especially when they are required to stay at home) helps reduce the negative effects of social isolation and loneliness (NHS 2019).

Evidently, digital inequalities cannot be bridged overnight, but these initiatives are particularly useful in time of crisis. More specifically, these initiatives are useful in tackling digital inequalities, because they look at the digital divide not only in terms of inequalities in access (first level of digital divide) but also in terms of uneven digital skills (second level) and uneven tangible outcomes people get from accessing and using the Internet (third level). In fact, by providing devices to access ICTs, these initiatives are reducing the first level, while providing basic digital skills to tackle the second level of digital divide. Overall these initiatives reduce also the third level of digital divide, by providing tangible and externally measurable outcomes (calling doctors, shopping and banking online) that improve people’s life chances. Therefore, the COVID-19 shows the importance of bridging digital inequalities to facilitate social relationships, global functions/interconnections and ordinary activities.

Lessons learned

Social and digital inequalities highlighted how specific subgroups are significantly more vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19, compared to their privileged counterparts. The crisis shows that social and digital solutions can be quickly implemented when necessary, but they need continuity to be effective. The lesson learned concerns the ability of policymakers to provide long-term strategies (as well as emergency plans) to tackle social and digital challenges. In fact, during a moment of crisis, the effects produced by social inclusion and digital-enhancing initiatives can only be limited because of the impossibility of tackling all the different levels of social and digital inequalities at the same time. In time of crisis, only a select group of people will be able to access the benefits provided by the emergency solutions in action. It is therefore necessary to consider social and digital inequalities as part of the same problem and promote initiatives to foster social and digital equity.

In conclusion, we may reiterate what we have tried to say throughout this article: the COVID-19 virus does not discriminate, but exacerbates existing social discrimination. It cannot be addressed as the sole cause of inequalities, but it brings to light the vulnerability of our unequal social assets. The COVID-19 might teach us that, despite our social adaptation capacity, being socially and digitally equipped can help mitigate the effects of global crises.

About the authors

Massimo Ragnedda, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in Mass Communication at Northumbria University, UK, where he conducts research on the digital divide and digital media.

Maria Laura Ruiu obtained her second PhD from Northumbria University, UK where she is Lecturer in Sociology. Her research interests fall into environmental and media sociology with specific focus on climate change communication, social capital and digital media.