digital exclusion pandemic

Digital Exclusion: Covid-19 and Social Inequalities

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The issue of digital exclusion is one that has long existed. In 2019, then-leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, proposed a policy which shook the commentariat to its core: the so-called ‘radical’ pledge to nationalise broadband, ensuring all across the UK would have access to the internet regardless of their socioeconomic status.

In an increasingly digitised world, where domestic processes such as applying for jobs, creating a CV and applying for Universal Credit are becoming contingent on access to both a digital device and broadband connection, you would be forgiven for assuming that such a policy would be welcomed by those who have even the most basic understanding of digital exclusion. 

Yet, despite this, following the public announcement of Labour’s broadband policy, many journalists took to penning scathing columns on how such a policy would cost the taxpayer millions; how it would prove nothing but a pipe dream and how the concept of nationalising broadband is, at its core, entirely unrealistic. 

Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of the Labour party, faced criticism for pledging to nationalise broadband. [Montage/Getty, Financial Times]

However, just months later, as nations across the globe began battling an unprecedented health crisis in the form of Covid-19, the need for free broadband and the consequences of digital exclusion were once more brought to the fore. Throughout this crisis, social inequalities have worsened, with the most marginalised communities often bearing the brunt of Covid-19. From those who live in overcrowded housing to those in public-facing ‘key worker’ roles primarily consisting of BIPOC and working-class people, the pandemic highlights the myriad ways in which inequality shapes our experiences. 

One way that these social inequalities have manifested is through digital exclusion. The rapidly increasing digitisation of healthcare services, educational resources, government correspondence and socialisation has meant that those without access to the internet or digital devices have become further isolated and suffered greater consequences. 

Poverty and Digital Exclusion

Research by Cambridge University found that the likelihood of having access to the internet from home increases along with income. Only 51% of households earning between £6000-10,000 have home internet access compared with 99% of households with an income of over £40,001. The issue of low-income families being unable to afford internet access from home is one which far precedes the pandemic. However, at a time when so many of our fundamental daily experiences have become accessible only via an online medium, digital exclusion has become of particular concern. 

The increasing digitisation of healthcare services, educational resources, government correspondence and socialisation means that those without internet access or digital devices have become further isolated. 

Take students, for example. Prior to the pandemic, children living in poverty were already at a disadvantage when it came to achieving grades 9-5 in their GCSEs. Now they face additional hurdles, with teaching primarily having moved to an online setting while the nation is in lockdown. Many children from low-income families do not have access to the same online resources as their peers – researchers predict they will fall even further behind as a result. Cambridge University’s research suggests that some low-income parents and those in poverty must decide between paying for wi-fi or feeding their children – understandably, they prioritise the latter. 

Children living in poverty suffer under the digital divide. [Getty images/The Independent]

The repercussions of digital exclusion due to poverty stretch far beyond educational settings, too. Since the pandemic has caused unemployment to spiral, those experiencing poverty have found themselves struggling to apply for jobs or essential assistance such as Universal Credit, having no means to do so. Libraries are often the only source of internet access for many, meaning closures across the country have exacerbated already difficult circumstances.

The Digitisation of Healthcare Services

A 2019 report by the ONS revealed that, in 2018, 5.3 million people across the UK did not use the internet. This is 10 percent of the adult population. Despite this, government bodies and organisations almost assume that internet access is universal. This is a dangerously misinformed approach, posing difficulties for many during the pandemic. In recent years, various NHS services have become digitalised. From prescription requests to online consultations, it is often easier, faster and more convenient to receive a response via an online medium as opposed to in-person. 

For those without internet access at home, these online health services have always proved limited, enhancing deep rooted health inequalities across the country. The impact of these restrictions has become particularly pronounced throughout the pandemic. In an attempt to reduce interaction, a number of healthcare services are now solely based online. Those without access to the internet or who lack the digital skills needed to navigate online services continue to face critical exclusion. 

In 2018, 5.3 million people across the UK did not use the internet. This is 10 percent of the adult population.

For this reason, lockdown strategies have regrettably heightened both digital and health inequalities. Speaking to The Lancet, Chief Executive of the Good Things Foundation, Helen Milner, commented: “There’s a massive overlap between digital exclusion and social exclusion, and then social exclusion and poverty, and poverty and health inequalities.”

Digitalised health services have deepened health inequalities. [PA/The Guardian]
The Correlation Between Social Exclusion and Digital Exclusion

Research by the BMJ analyses this overlap between social and digital exclusion. It finds that ‘income, language, literacy, culture, and ethnicity’ significantly influence digital exclusion, meaning those who typically face social exclusion – such as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, people experiencing homelessness and traveller communities – suffer disproportionately under the digital divide.

A Rapid Needs Assessment undertaken by Doctors of the World explored the impact of Covid-19 on these excluded groups, specifically in relation to accessing health services. It found that many cannot afford phone credit or internet data. Even for those who can afford it, waiting to connect to an interpreter or having long phone consultations drains their credit. 

It is vital that the government does more to support these groups. Asylum seekers, for example, receive a meagre £37.75 per week in financial assistance. This amount is supposed to cover daily essentials such as food, sanitary products and clothing. Despite the growing demand for internet access to be recognised as a necessity as opposed to a luxury, the government continues to do little to ensure those seeking asylum have the digital means to navigate day-to-day activities.

Alleviating Digital Exclusion

During the pandemic, many are relying on access to the internet for both essential services such as food deliveries to socialisation with family and friends. Those seeking asylum are already five times more likely to have mental health needs than the general population, yet many remain cut off from technology due to the inadequate financial support they receive from the UK government

It is more important than ever that the government supports those who are socially and digitally excluded. Ability to access the internet is essential in modern society and cannot be understated. As well as providing the means to access vital services such as healthcare, food delivery and welfare support services, it also alleviates isolation, allowing for connectivity with friends and family. This is invaluable both during the pandemic and beyond.

Written by
Holly Barrow