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Pandemic Inequality
Opinion

In Pandemic, A Society Divided, And It’s Not Just Along Religious Lines

The most important point is the digital divide should not be seen as distinctive of other inequalities that exist in our society.

 

The Covid-19 pandemic has actually been an eye-opener for us all. It tells us where we stand in life, whether our governments value our lives and most of all, how valuable are we to ourselves. It has given us an insight into the inequalities that have always existed in our societies but now these inequalities have only further intensified in the pandemic. The fact is, our Indian society has deep-rooted structural imbalances which stand highly exposed in these times.

Huge loss in pandemic

The writing on the wall was clear and even I have had to break up some investments, think differently and do freelance work, which pays me just little more than a cup of coffee at a Di Bella. Keeping in mind this situation, I asked my class of PG journalism students to interview their parents as part of a work assignment – what would they have done had they lost their jobs? The students were startled initially, but easy as it is to delve into the lives of other people and demand answers/explanations, it is tougher to speak to one’s own. But to their credit, they did go and ask. Their parents gave them interesting replies. One was honest, “We would have died,” was her stark rejoinder. She was not exaggerating or being dramatic. Not having a job amid this pandemic is a challenge the haves are not aware of.

Some parents were diffident initially, but after a bit of prodding by their wards, they opened up and made the latter realise how important savings are and more importantly, the art of survival. One parent thought of how they would’ve asked their siblings living abroad for help. What was heartening was the sincerity of these parents when speaking to their children. They seriously spoke about their status, their savings and ways in which one could cut down on lifestyle habits. This was more important I felt, because the students were all girls.

LSR student Aishwarya Reddy, 19 died by suicide. Hailing from a poor family, she was struggling to study online.

 

I asked the girls about gold and how come that did not come up in their discussions, since the majority of Indians buy and keep gold for emergency situations like these. They came back with a yes. Their parents did consider it, before dismantling their investments. During the pandemic, people who would have otherwise thought ten times before selling the family gold are now selling it. Firstly, gold is, truly as good as it is said to be, reliable cash assured, the best bet in times of no income or jobs.

Internet inequalities

But imagine, despite the varied reactions, including extreme economic measures, these students are studying online, often with internet interruptions, but they are seen and heard. This is not the case with most of India, which is ridden with inequalities. Since March, all institutions have been shut as online classes and examinations are being held. Except for Mumbai, in all other areas, there is daily load shedding. In many villages and smaller towns, there is no power after a particular time in the day. Students do not have access to a computer, laptop, tablet, or even a hand-held device. Here comes the issue of internet connectivity.

According to the National sample survey report on education, 2017-2018 only 24% of Indian households have an internet facility, among which are 42% urban households. India has 66% of the population living in villages but only 15% of those households have internet facilities. The Maharashtra State Council of Educational Research and Training (MSCERT), in association with the United Nations International Children’s Fund (Unicef), surveyed 737 schools and 6,855 students were interviewed for the study. This survey was conducted to understand the obstacles students faced before they could begin online classes.

With Schools and Colleges shut since March, most classes have now shifted online

 

The most common obstacle was the internet connection. This was commonly seen in the marginalised and socially backward groups. That is exactly what drove Aishwarya Reddy, an LSR student from Telangana, to take the extreme step. She was found hanging at her home. An extremely bright student who faced two main challenges — one, she couldn’t study online and the other, she had been asked to vacate her hostel. In fact, there are studies that show 50% of people in India don’t have access to the internet. India tops this list, followed by China, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh. Ironically, India has the second-largest online market in the world.

Now compare this to urban privileged households where a student was to take an exam a few days ago and her parent tweeted saying, the girl’s exam demanded two-three devices, two cameras that ensured clear view and a document scanner for the finished paper. We are a hugely divided nation and it is not just along religious lines.

This divide is not restricted to India alone, all developing nations are facing the challenge of a digital divide. The UNDP has estimated that 86% of primary-school-age children in low human development countries are not getting an education since the pandemic broke out. This is in comparison to just 20% in those countries with a high human development index. This is a regressive trend, which the UNDP says will see us regress by 30 years before the period of Sustainable Development Goals.

This internet divide is not restricted to income categories only. In fact, a quantitative study was conducted to study Covid-19 related internet uses and outcomes. This international study found, older people were less equipped to use the internet but more likely to engage in information-type Covid-19 related internet uses. This is crucial information since this is the category of people at greater risk if they catch the virus. Moreover, there are a number of disadvantaged groups and some fall into multiple groups. For instance, a person belongs to a socially backward group, have low income, has no device and is still forced to pull out of school. Or another from these various groups neither has internet access nor a tool. The most important point is the digital divide should not be seen as distinctive of other inequalities that exist in our society. So a person who cannot afford internet, also can’t afford health care, you can’t buy a phone and are also not able to buy food. As was exactly the case with Aishwarya Reddy’s family.

Health divide

Now, take the case of those who can afford to study online, have the advantage of PS stations, accessibility to maidans, playgrounds, gyms, and maidans. Now contrast this to those millions in just this city who live in cheek-by-jowl situations where there is no privacy and they cannot go out to play, as their premises abut roads or worse, there is no space even outside. The pandemic has thrown open the divide in accessibility to green and open spaces. It was only at the end of June that the Chowpatty beach was open to the general public — a place where the majority of the populace goes to unwind, an inexpensive public space for entertainment.

Covid-19 patients who hail from lower strata of society find it difficult to afford healthcare services.

 

Majority of poor and lower strata are scared of hospitals. Healthcare for the majority and for those who can afford it are worlds apart, a phenomenon seen across the world. The World Health Organisation said, “There is ample evidence that social factors including education, employment status, income level, gender and ethnicity have a marked influence on how healthy a person is”.

Among the ones to suffer the most are women. They are more likely to lose jobs, not get new ones and their health too is of greater concern. Moreover, the unpaid work women do is not counted. When it comes to female school dropouts, the fact is they may never return. This has prompted UN Secretary-General António Guterres to put women and girls at the centre of efforts to recover from Covid-19. The fear being expressed is that the divide and inequality will not stop here. Now that there is news of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca being 70% effective, there already are fears of countries hoarding the vaccine. They have said since the price is not prohibitive, it will be accessible to the masses. It is left to be seen if the vaccine is able to overcome the existing inequalities in Indian society.

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