Covid-19 and Digital Inequalities

14 Sep 2020 – Written by Joey Gurney


  • Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, many aspects of daily life have moved online. Nationwide lockdowns prompted governments to act by accelerating existing digital initiatives or creating new ones. Similarly the European Union’s recognition of the increased dependency on the online world is reflected in the introduced measures designed to assist the transition to digital.

  • The ongoing crisis has also exposed and could even exacerbate digital inequalities. There are pre-existing divides across the EU in digital literacy and in digital access across Europe, and as the continent becomes more dependent on digital services, those without reliable access or basic digital skills are at risk of being further excluded. There are digital divides between Member States too, with a particularly divide between North and South countries.

  • Recent data taken from the DESI indicates EU Member States are actively trying to bridge the digital gap. In recent years, countries, such as Germany and Italy have introduced meaningful initiatives and measures designed to improve their digital capabilities and in theory reduce digital inequalities. While poor digitally performing countries (per the DESI) have also recently introduced digital initiatives, it is too soon to assess their impact fairly.

  • The Covid-19 pandemic also provides the EU and Member States with an opportunity to improve digital services and reduce digital inequalities. The importance of widespread digital access has never been more apparent and European political and business leaders must act accordingly.

Once Covid-19 broke out across Europe and governments were forced to introduce nationwide lockdowns, the benefits of widespread digital access quickly became apparent. With restrictions on physical interactions in place, European society had to adapt and many aspects of daily life moved predominately online. However, this increased dependency on the digital world soon exposed and exacerbated existing inequalities, particularly in the differences of digital access and in digital literacy.

Countries in the European Union have responded to the pandemic by accelerating the transition process towards the digital economy, fast tracking the introduction of digital solutions and creating new solutions when required (Miladinovic, 2020).  As part of this response, national governments have increased support to business in areas of e-commerce, teleworking and online training. However, the details of how governments have responded tend to vary. In Italy, like in most European countries, the government has introduced several digital-related initiatives to deal with the crisis. This includes asking the private sector to offer their products or services for free and help citizens, professionals and companies to continue their activities during lockdown (European Commission, 2020b). Other countries have gone further; in Germany, digital platforms have been set up to provide advice for SMEs affected by the crisis (European Commission, 2020c) and in Luxembourg, digital platforms have been used to connect companies in need of manpower with companies whose staff are partially unemployed and other short time workers (European Commission, 2020d). The digitisation of Luxembourg’s businesses has also been accelerating through initiatives such as the introduction of an e-commerce platform to allow local traders to sell online (European Commission, 2020d).

At the international level, the European Commission responded to the Covid-19 crisis by working with BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) to set up a reporting mechanism to monitor the internet traffic situation in each Member State in anticipation of increased usage, while the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition started to organise thematic webinars with the National Coalitions (and their members) to share their challenges, solutions and experiences in response to the sudden need for digital skills among Europeans (European Commission, 2020a). Furthermore, in a watershed moment, the EU launched the Next Generation EU recovery plan which will provide Member States with the funds to focus on green and digital transitions as they seek to recover from the ongoing crisis (European Commission, 2020f).  

Initiatives focused on accelerating digitalisation are not the only digital changes sparked by the pandemic. Telework has become the new normal for some Europeans, particularly for many office-based staff from both the private and public sectors (Miladinovic, 2020). Data shows, as of May this year, over 36% of EU citizens had started working from home as a direct consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, while some experts predict the number to be even higher (Sostero et al, 2020). The European Vice President of the European Commission for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age, Margrethe Vestager, has recognised the rise in numbers of teleworkers stating the crisis has increased “digital working” substantially and has demanded the European bloc aim for higher digital standards in its response to the crisis (Euractiv, 2020).

The Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) suggests efforts were being made at both a supranational and national level to reduce digital inequalities throughout the EU, even before the Covid-19 outbreak. The DESI is an index that monitors Europe’s and individual Member States’ digital performance and focuses on five indicators; connectivity, human capital, use of internet services, integration of digital technology and digital public services. The latest data taken from the index shows there has been an improvement in all five across the EU while digital public services and integration of digital technology have seen the most improvement in the last five years, although the latter remains the weakest of all five indicators (European Commission, 2020e). Moreover, a desire for digital improvement has been reflected in national strategies and policies in recent years too. Germany had launched several measures to advance digitisation through initiatives focusing on IT security, artificial intelligence and block chain, while at the end of 2019, Italy adopted a five-year plan which shifted digitisation to the centre of its plans for structural and radical reform (European Commission, 2020a). Promisingly, Member States with little or no improvement in the last five years have all recently launched digital initiatives in attempts to improve their digital performance too (European Commission, 2020a). Nevertheless, increasing digital divides in Europe can be seen in a variety of dimensions, including differences in digital literacy and access to digital technology, socio-economic links to teleworking and the economic geographic divides within the Union. Several of these divides are explored below.

The skills and accessibility dimension

The DESI has reported improvement across the EU in the five keys areas of digitisation but, despite this improvement, there remains much to be done to reduce existing digital divides. For example, only 58% of EU citizens have at minimum basic digital skills (European Commission, 2020a). This suggests a large population of Europeans lack any digital abilities, despite most jobs requiring such skills. This was highlighted in a recent European Commission document which stated half of the current workforce will need to update their skills within the next five years (Stolton, 2020). Worryingly, this divide is likely to be exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. After lockdowns were introduced in European countries, many aspects of social and professional life shifted online, a move which risks further isolating citizens lacking any digital ability.

While digital exclusion is not a new phenomenon, the ongoing crisis is likely to reinforce it and not having adequate access to digital technology is an issue every European country needs to address (Watts, 2020). Households with low incomes may be unable to afford a reliable internet connection (in terms of speed or data) and poorer households may have to share bandwidth or devices (Beaunoyer et al., 2020). Consequently, this would put low income households at an immediate disadvantage (in both a social and professional sense) compared to those who can afford access to a stable internet connection and their own device. Furthermore, digital infrastructure is severely lacking in some regions within European countries (usually in rural areas) and as a result, citizens residing in these areas have a weak or even no internet connection (Ben et al., 2017). And, as Europe becomes more digitalised in a post Covid-19 world, those without reliable access to the internet are at risk of becoming further marginalised.

The telework dimension

It is believed by many that the Covid-19 pandemic will transform the nature of work permanently (Euractiv, 2020). There is likely to be an increasing use of virtual conferencing for day-to-day meetings, workshops, trainings, or even team building activities (World Economic Forum, 2020). This increasing shift was evident before Covid-19 too; the DESI shows between 2018 and 2020 video calling had become an increasingly popular option as the number of users increased to 60% from 49% (European Commission, 2020a). Furthermore, in response to the crisis many companies have replaced entire roles with digital solutions, tools and services (World Economic Forum, 2020). All these modifications could result in a permanent increase in the rate of teleworking across the EU and a significant change in working relationships.

In addition to the lack of internet infrastructure in some regions, which could prevent some professionals from teleworking, results also suggest that that the expansion of telework (since the Covid-19 outbreak) has been strongly skewed towards high-paid and white-collar employment (Sostero et al., 2020). It is estimated only 37% of dependent employment in the EU is currently “teleworkable” and two thirds of workers do not perceive telework as a viable option in their current role (Sostero et al., 2020). This creates a new division between those who are able to telework and those who cannot, and as the pandemic forces workplaces to close temporarily or permanently, the latter will be at greater risk of job insecurity.

The geographic dimension

There is a clear North and South digital divide in Europe; the top four performing countries on the DESI are Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, while at the opposing end of the index lie Italy, Romania, Greece and Bulgaria, with the latter being the worst performing country in the EU (European Commission, 2020e). It is evident, as society becomes more dependent on digital resources and the skills required to use them, the crisis will exacerbate these digital divides between EU Member States. The ability to effectively adapt to large-scale teleworking is also likely to differ significantly across EU countries due to pre-existing infrastructure and levels of digital literacy. For example, in the Netherlands 79% of the population have basic digital skills, while in Bulgaria only 29% do (European Commission, 2020e). Additionally, the North and South divide is reflected in the number of people who have started working from home since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Finland 59% of professionals have started to work from home (the highest number in the EU), the Netherlands nearly 54%, Denmark 46.7% and Sweden 41.8% (Eurofound, 2020). While in Romania only 18.4% of Romanians have begun working from home, Greece 26% and Bulgaria 28.8% – Italy is the only Member State from the lowest performers on the DESI who is above 30% (Eurofound, 2020).

Untapped potential

While it is true Covid-19 has exacerbated existing digital divides, it has also provided the EU and its Member States with an opportunity to address these inequalities head on. The crisis has increased the dependency on digital access, thus highlighting the necessity to improve digital inequality which in turn intensifies the pressure on European leaders to take action towards bridging the divide. However, how digital inequality should be tackled remains contested. Bulgarian Member of the European Parliament, Eva Maydell, states decreasing the digital gap requires significant action to assure that every company and organisation has access to digital solutions in order to participate in the digital economy (Euractiv, 2020). However, Kira Allman argues providing people with the correct equipment and ‘real access’ is not enough; solutions must include long term support networks to encourage and help European citizens to acquire the digital skills they currently lack (Watts, 2020). 

As highlighted in the DESI, better telecoms infrastructure will be imperative in reducing the digital divide (European Commission, 2020a). Therefore, considerable financial investment is necessary to improve levels of digital access in the EU. It is also clear national governments must work together with businesses in order to upskill or reskill the workforce. Digital literacy is the backbone of the digital economy and there must be significant effort to improve the number of Europeans with basic digital skills. Furthermore, telecommunications providers must work closely with governments and legislative bodies to develop long-term solutions to bridge the digital gap (European Commission, 2020a). The collective partnership between governments and the telecommunications industry has never been more important. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the potential of the digital world. The time has come for significant investment and effort to ensure its potential is available to all Europeans. 





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Recommended citation:

Gurney, J. (2020) Big Tech in the EU: Competition and Regulatory Harmony, IDRN, 14 September. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].