The emergence of the digital economy has been considered one of the main drivers of the social, economic, and political transformation of society (Guo & Wan, 2022). This digital transformation has disrupted many fields and industries, resulting in the development of innovative products and services (Cheshmehzangi et al., 2022). E-commerce, on-demand and subscription-based entertainment, peer-to-peer platforms, and new employment opportunities are just a few examples of how the digital economy has contributed to the quality of our lives (Li, 2022).
With that being stated, digital proliferation comes with a cost. One of the ‘side effects’ of global digitisation is known as the digital divide, the gap between those who have adopted and have access to modern communications and information technology and those who do not (Sabatello et al., 2020). The recent coronavirus pandemic has added to inequalities related to the digital divide. While the existing literature predominantly focuses on the impact of the digital divide on the individual’s health and well-being, its consequences and implications for pandemic management remain somewhat unclear (Aydin, 2021). This essay intends to address this gap and evaluate the emerging role of the digital economy in the digital divide during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.
2. Digital Economy and COVID-19
Digital technologies not only accelerate the integration with companies and industries but also bring the world into the era of the digital economy (Van Deursen, 2020). This paradigm shift implies the networking of technology, as well as humans through technology, which has embedded the digital economy into virtually all social and economic activities. Still, the definition of this concept is vague and not inclusive. For example, Lamberti et al. (2021) defined the digital economy in terms of three components, namely e-business, e-business infrastructure, and e-commerce. Alternatively, some scholars view the digital economy as a process rather than a static phenomenon (Nguyen et al., 2021). In recent years, however, the digital economy concept has evolved into something more universal, as scholars now view it to integrate all digitally-oriented economic and social activities (Li, 2022).
The role of the digital economy in overcoming the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has also been highlighted in the existing literature (Nguyen et al., 2020). Scholars have largely focused on how the digital economy affects the e-commerce supply chain, consumer surplus, and smart cities (Mullick & Patnaik, 2022). Overall, there is a consensus that the digital economy has contributed to economic recovery after the outbreak of COVID-19 (Hu & Zheng, 2020). Some scholars argue that the digital economy facilitates value-added distribution in global value chains, enables society to prevent the spread of the virus, and encourages economic development (Mathrani et al., 2021). Indeed, the outbreak of COVID-19 has accelerated the growth of e-commerce since many consumers have switched to the internet and e-commerce platforms. In turn, business entities had to respond to this shift to maintain their competitiveness, which also became a major driver for accelerated economic growth (Spanakis et al., 2021). In addition, the COVID-19 crisis has facilitated the development of remote working as the preferred way of employment in many industries (Bonacini et al., 2021).
The digital economy has also contributed to the emergence of so-called smart cities, where communications and information technologies are employed to improve operational efficiency, provide a better quality of life, and share information with the public more effectively and efficiently (Watts, 2020). Smart cities have become more integrated and well-equipped as compared to other cities, which has allowed for managing the spread of the virus more effectively (Mullick & Patnaik, 2022). Cities that employ smart city policies are more successful in following techno-driven anti-coronavirus approaches, including social distancing, lockdowns, and mitigating human movement (Hu & Zheng, 2020). At the same time, the study by Mullick and Patnaik (2022) demonstrated that despite their technological advancement and heavy reliance on technology, smart cities were unprepared for the outbreak. This lack of preparedness translated into much higher death and positivity rates than planned.
3. Digital Divide During the COVID-19 Pandemic
One of the reasons behind the failure of the digital economy in general and smart cities, in particular, to manage the spread of the COVID-19 infection is the digital divide (Hu & Zheng, 2020). While this gap has been a long-standing policy and social issue, it has extensively widened with the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (Aydin, 2021). The extensive adoption of the internet, hardware, software, and subscriptions widens the gap between technology haves and have-nots (Cheshmehzangi et al., 2022).
Pre-pandemic studies emphasise that individuals’ socioeconomic and demographic profiles (e.g., education, income, gender, and place of residence) affect the use of the internet and other information and communications technologies (Spanakis et al., 2021). In turn, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic is reported to amplify digital inequality in both developed and developing countries (Sabatello et al., 2020). In accordance with Beaunoyer et al. (2020), for example, people privileged in their online experience, internet skills, and socioeconomic status have more chances to maintain their lifestyles, consumption patterns, and communication during the pandemic (Guo & Wan, 2022). Concurrently, social distancing restrictions pose the greatest risk to disadvantaged groups, making their learning, employment, and communication questionable (Lamberti et al., 2021).
The development of the digital economy is commonly reported to widen the gap between younger and older, which is another reason why the digital divide can have important implications and consequences for pandemic management (He et al., 2022). Those individuals who belong to an older generation tend to demonstrate lower levels of technology acceptance as compared to young adults (Saha et al., 2021). As a result, during the COVID-19 pandemic, older individuals who do not have highly developed internet skills become deprived of the information, services, and products that support their health and well-being (Yoon et al., 2020). In a similar manner, Song et al. (2021) discovered that while the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the pace of information and communications technology utilisation, it exacerbated the digital divide between young and old. Consequently, older adults have largely been excluded from society, be it real or virtual (He et al., 2022). Song et al. (2021) focused on China, which can be viewed as a potential limitation to the generalisability of their empirical findings. The People’s Republic of China is one of a few countries in the world that lifted the most severe anti-coronavirus policies, including isolating people with mild or no symptoms in state facilities and the need to show tests for most venues (Mao, 2022).
Even young individuals who actively use digital services experience serious challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic. In their study, Saha et al. (2021) examined the impact that the digital divide due to COVID-19 produced on the mental health and well-being of undergraduate students. By analysing primary data obtained from 180 students, the researchers found that around 70% of the surveyed individuals felt mild and severe psychological distress because of the pandemic, its restrictions, and its consequences (Saha et al., 2021). Similar outcomes were produced by Alkureishi et al. (2021) who demonstrated that social isolation and lockdown measures not only significantly limited individuals’ ability to maintain their pre-pandemic lifestyles. They also increased the levels of depression, stress, and anxiety in society (Watts, 2020). The digital divide amplifies these negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. It should be noted that older adults are more vulnerable than young individuals. Since those who belong to an older generation use the internet less, they get poor access to critical information and necessary support (He et al., 2022).
The digital economy is widely acknowledged to facilitate the emergence and development of remote forms of communication, employment, healthcare, and education during the coronavirus pandemic (Nguyen et al., 2020). However, not all scholars support the idea that it has widened the digital divide, which comes in contradiction with mainstream literature. The phenomenon of an inverted digital divide during the COVID-19 crisis was described by Grishchenko (2022). The researcher examined the changes in internet use in 2020 in several European counties. Based on secondary data derived from Eurostat for 2014-2020, Grishchenko (2022) discovered that the selected countries witnessed a decrease in internet use. These outcomes are contrary to the general trend of increasing internet use caused by lockdowns and social distancing restrictions (Van Deursen, 2020). One potential explanation for this inverted digital divide is the perceived vulnerability of digitised companies, jobs, and industries (Li, 2022). Another possible reason behind decreasing internet use in the selected European countries is that COVID-19 has damaged many businesses that had to adapt to the new environment or leave the market (Aydin, 2021). Still, given that Grishchenko (2022) focused on highly digitally developed countries, the inability of companies in these countries to digitise their operations is questionable.
4. Consequences and Implications for Pandemic Management
There has been extensive discussion on the role of the digital economy in the digital divide during the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the individual, economy, and society (Spanakis et al., 2021). Nonetheless, empirical evidence on two of the most relevant health outcomes of the COVID-19 crisis, namely infections and deaths, is still fragmented and scarce (Kishore et al., 2021). Apart from the aforementioned effects of the digital divide on people’s access to information, well-being, and health, there are multiple reasons to believe that unequal access to digital technology may contribute to the spread of the virus and lead to a higher death rate (Beaunoyer et al., 2020). When individuals are digitally excluded, their ability to adhere to isolation and quarantine measures is limited, as they simply do not have access to relevant information. Moreover, digital exclusion deprives people of their ability to work remotely (Hu & Zheng, 2020). Having to work in person significantly increases one’s risk of contracting coronavirus. However, the ability to telecommute depends heavily on the nature of the occupation, which means that not all jobs can be performed remotely, even if a person has highly developed internet skills and considerable online experience (Bonacini et al., 2021).
Another reason why the digital divide can lead to higher numbers of infections and deaths from COVID-19 is that it slows down the dissemination of knowledge and information (Alkureishi et al., 2021). This negative effect of digital exclusion can prevent people from timely responding and taking precautionary measures. In marginalised groups and communities (e.g., older adults and individuals with disabilities), the digital divide reduces people’s awareness and understanding of a local pandemic situation (Cho & Kim, 2022). This lack of awareness can lead to delays in masking, social distancing, and ventilation and sanitation upgrades, leading to an increased risk of coronavirus exposure and transmission (Nguyen et al., 2020). Concurrently, Yoon et al. (2020) noted that the negative effect of digital exclusion is often mitigated by social connections and networks. For example, an older adult is likely to have a family member who can instruct them to stay at home and avoid any face-to-face contact.
Many of the pandemic response measures indeed depend on digital technologies and platforms. Starting from contact tracing and testing to vaccines and treatments, all these activities and processes rely on technology to a particular extent (Kishore et al., 2021). Therefore, even if digitally disadvantaged individuals are aware of a coronavirus outbreak in their community and willing to take precautionary measures, it might be challenging to locate and access the required resources (Beaunoyer et al., 2020). For example, certain medicines or devices can be in short supply or available online only. Similarly, the digital exclusion could prevent an individual from securing a vaccination appointment in certain regions (Guo & Wan, 2022). Even if an individual can access the internet, they should be able to identify the product or service needed and verify online stores to purchase protective equipment or get themselves a vaccine shot (Alkureishi et al., 2021). All these technological barriers caused by the digital divide intensify the challenges faced by digitally marginalised individuals and communities in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences.
The digital divide could also potentially affect the way individuals perceive the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as related issues, such as social distancing and isolation. In turn, these distorted perceptions could lead to increased coronavirus transmission (Lamberti et al., 2021). Even though the COVID-19 pandemic is largely a public health crisis, the role of public opinion and trust in the spread of this disease should not be underestimated (Li, 2022). COVID-19 denialism has become a serious challenge to the effectiveness of the public health system in many developed and developing countries alike. For example, Donald Trump repeatedly promised that under his leadership the COVID-19 disease would simply vanish. This denial cost the US around 100,000 lives (Pilkington, 2020).
Recent studies have demonstrated that COVID-19 denialism results in mistrust in health agencies and the government, which, in turn, triggers incompliance with public health measures and increased mortality rates from this disease (Cheshmehzangi et al., 2022). The role of the digital divide in the public trust crisis is not as straightforward as it might seem. Social media platforms have significantly facilitated the reinforcement of existing misbeliefs and the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 (Bonacini et al., 2021). With that being stated, individuals can counter misinformation by fact-checking, active information consumption through alternative channels, and exposure to contradicting content (Nguyen et al., 2021). Still, the ability to do so strongly depends on one’s access to and knowledge of digital technologies. The digital divide is one of the reasons for the lack of proficiency in digital technologies, which creates information asymmetries and strongly diminishes one’s ability to seek and verify the information. Even though the digital divide per se is not directly linked to the ideological divide, which shapes and forms coronavirus perceptions, it still makes those individuals who do not have extensive access to digital technologies more vulnerable to misinformation about the disease (Kishore et al., 2021).
As previously noted, the coronavirus pandemic has produced a strong impact on mental health, as many individuals have suffered from different degrees of depression, anxiety, and stress (Ahmed & Sifat, 2021). The role of the digital divide in this negative effect should also be considered. In accordance with Kummitha (2020), the digital exclusion could exacerbate COVID-19’s impact on mental health. In support of this standpoint, Van Deursen (2020) noted that digitally disadvantaged individuals disproportionally experienced social isolation, loneliness, depression, and suicide intentions. The reason for that is that many in-person social interactions, activities, and services have been replaced by online ones. The literature indicates that there is a relationship between mental health and the immune system (Beaunoyer et al., 2020). Therefore, the widening gap between those who have access to digital technologies and those who do not can subject digitally marginalised to a higher risk of severe coronavirus outcomes.
From the discussion above, it becomes apparent that the digital divide is not only a threat to people’s physical and mental health and well-being. It is also a serious barrier to effective pandemic management, which relies heavily on information and communications technologies (Ahmed & Sifat, 2021). To be effective, pandemic management requires active community participation, as well as decentralised management. The achievement of this goal is impossible without implementing sophisticated digital technologies and solutions in the administrative and local governance systems. For example, these technologies could be used to form functional datasets and create a blended data environment to handle the pandemic crisis more effectively (Li, 2022). Decentralised management powered by digital technologies can help in collaborative functioning, analysing, and decision-making during the pandemic.
Previous studies demonstrate that the effectiveness of decentralised administration tends to decline as the digital divide widens (Nguyen et al., 2021). The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the gap between those who have access to information and communications technologies and digitally excluded individuals. Thus, to bridge this gap and add to the effectiveness of pandemic management, it is recommended that governments should practise digital inclusivity among citizens. This could be achieved by addressing the existing socioeconomic inequalities in society. For example, by contributing to the level of citizens’ education and spending power, it would be possible to positively affect the adoption of digital technologies by marginalised groups (Jaiswal et al., 2020). Still, this recommendation does not refer to older adults who generally demonstrate a reluctance to the adoption and usage of new technologies (He et al., 2022).
The digital economy has created a gap between those who have easy access to digital technologies and can use them and those who cannot (Aydin, 2021). The recent coronavirus pandemic has propelled this divide both directly and indirectly. The techno-driven coronavirus pandemic management focuses on those individuals who had highly developed internet skills and extensive online experience (Spanakis et al., 2021). In turn, the digitally excluded and marginalised citizens are largely ignored, which significantly adds to their risk of COVID-19 exposure and transmission (Mullick & Patnaik, 2022). The negative impact of the digital divide on individuals’ well-being, as well as mental and physical health, is well documented in the existing body of literature (Cheshmehzangi et al., 2022). The COVID-19 pandemic and governments’ digital response can be viewed as the main reasons behind the widened digital divide and the lack of digital inclusivity among marginalised groups and digitally excluded citizens (Kummitha, 2020).
As this essay has demonstrated, there is little evidence on how the challenge of the digital divide could be addressed to provide the digitally excluded and marginalised with more rights to the smart city. Nonetheless, it is apparent that including individuals in pandemic management is key to the mitigation of the COVID-19 crisis (Hu & Zheng, 2020). That is why governments and policy-makers should focus on citizen inclusivity by introducing policies and initiatives, which could train individuals to become more proficient in digital technologies. This strategic step is expected to help digitally excluded citizens more effectively get and share information, fight misinformation, and monitor the movement of the outbreak in their community (Cho & Kim, 2022). Consequently, this change can reduce the risk of severe coronavirus outcomes for marginalised people, including older adults and individuals with disabilities (Sabatello et al., 2020).
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