The COVID-19 pandemic has increased economic inequality in India as well as other parts of the world. This can be gauged from the fact that the many reports are telling that rich have become even richer and on the other hand, millions of people are facing job loss and income crisis.
In this pandemic, India saw an accelerated use of digital technologies in the country as a response against the pandemic. Essential services like health and education are at the forefront of this campaign. Initiatives like work from home, online classes, digital meetings, apps like Aarogya Setu, telemedicine, online registration for vaccination etc are testimony of the Increasing use of digital technologies.
Although these digital initiatives are helping to reduce the disruption caused by the pandemic, they are also causing a digital divide as digital technologies are working to reorganize the ways of education and health that were already inaccessible by the unprivileged class. This further digitisation is now widening the already present gap.
Digital technologies and automated decision-making tools have increased inequalities, particularly by creating barriers for people to get the services they are entitled to. This can be seen prominently in the main pillars of social infrastructure i.e. education and health.
Digital inequality in Education
Online education has the virtues of continuous and uniform education but the fact is that the privileged class gets ahead of it. The reason they are ahead is not that they are more intelligent but because of the privileges, they enjoy.
Surveys conducted by NCERT, Azim Premji Foundation, ASER and Oxfam suggest that 27% to 60% of students do not access online classes for various reasons such as lack of devices, shared devices, inability to buy “data packs”, etc. Besides, many people do not have an in-house learning environment. For example, a conducive silent environment for studies is not available to many unprivileged students.This situation is more grave for girls in India as the additional requirement for girls is that they will contribute to household chores when they are at home.
Equality of opportunity is one of the core principles of the Indian Constitution. Switching to a system that benefits only a section of the people and leaves the needy behind is a violation of constitutional ethos.
The digital divide in the Health sector
Like education, a similar situation can be observed in health care. In India, a mammoth inequality was already present in health care even before this pandemic.
There is a shortage of essential commodities such as medicines, hospital beds, oxygen, vaccines, etc. The private hospitals that the patients require are highly expensive and a black market for scarce services likethe oxygen has further deteriorated the situation.
Developing an app to deal with issues like crisis management and black marketing is being seen as a solution to the allocation of various health services. However, this gives rise to several other issues.
Platform and app-based solutions may deprive the poor of services altogether or further reduce their access to health services. Such as booking a slot can be very difficult for those without a phone, computer and internet. The Digital Health ID project is being pursued during the epidemic. However, given that India lacks a data privacy law, it is highly likely that our health records will be passed into the hands of private entities without our consent.
Need of the hour
A multi-pronged approach to education is much needed. Educational timetables and options should be explored in collaboration with schools, teachers and parents to impart education to a large section of students.Prioritizing underprivileged students who do not have access to e-learning.Real efforts should be invested in ensuring that every child gets a good quality equitable education as a fundamental right.
In health care, health expenditure on basic health services needs to be further increased. Nevertheless, a little more improvement is expected in apps like Aarogya Setu, Aadhaar and Digital Health ID. Furthermore, until the laws against medical malpractice are strictly enforced, digital solutions will overcome and distract us from the real problem. Thus there is a need to make systemic reforms in the healthcare sector.
Certainly, technology has emerged as a saviour, but it also sometimes generates inconsistencies for the vulnerable. Hopefully, this pandemic will be able to teach us to be more judicious and adopt digital technologies.