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    View: How Coronavirus accentuates inequality

    Synopsis

    Being one of the most unequal countries in the world, India remains in a particularly precarious position.

    ANI
    Coronavirus

    COVID-19 CASES

    Confirmed
    1,855,745
    Deaths
    38,938
    By Amit Kapoor & Chirag Yadav

    Inequality is a phenomenon that always permeates all levels of society across all walks of life. But its effects are exacerbated in times of crisis just like the one that is currently underway. The COVID has spread across every continent infecting millions in its wake, which seems to be an equalising trend at first glance. In fact, the Global South seems to be relatively less affected than its richer counterparts as is evident in the African experience until now. But in any country around the world, the poor are the most vulnerable to the pandemic and its aftereffects. Out of all countries, India remains in a particularly precarious position being one of the most unequal countries in the world with a significant burden of poverty as well.

    It is the poorest sections of society which will find it most challenging to access healthcare, more so in India where out-of-pocket expenditure forms a bulk of medical expenses. Poor neighbourhoods are also more densely packed, which increases the likelihood of the spread of the virus. Their households are also typically constrained in terms of access of basic services like continuous water supply, which makes hygiene a luxury. But apart from such healthcare concerns of the pandemic itself, it is becoming evident that its unequal repercussions extend across every aspect of livelihood that is crucial for development and will set back our fight against poverty and inequality by decades.

    The access to education, for instance, is becoming more challenging for children from poorer households. For a majority of Indians, digital learning is still not a viable option. Even though the mobile phone and internet penetration has been quite rapid and high over the last few years, the digital divide is still quite significant. As per the 75th round of National Sample Survey (NSS) from 2017-18, merely 24 per cent of Indian households have an internet connection. There is a stark urban-rural divide in this spread. While a little over 15 per cent of Indian households have access to internet, the corresponding figure for urban households is 42 per cent.

    Then there is the question of access to digital devices like smartphones and computers and also a reliable electricity connection to operate them. The same NSS report shows that only 24 per cent Indians own a smartphone and 11 per cent households own a computer. Moreover, merely 8 per cent households with members aged between five and twenty-four years possess a computer along with an internet connection. Finally, a survey by the Ministry of Rural Development showed that less than half of Indian households received more than 12 hours of electricity in a day, which implies that even those households that have access to digital devices might face operational challenges. Thus, only a miniscule proportion of the Indian population can imagine providing education for their children through digital means at a time when traditional mechanisms have broken down.

    As a result of the unequal nature of the impact of the coronavirus, its effects will reverberate across generations. The children from poor households that will lose out on vital access to education as long as the pandemic continues will hardly see an improvement in their conditions after that. These children will witness their households slide further into poverty over the coming year. The ILO estimates that more than 400 million people in India stare at such a future as they rely on informal work. In such a scenario, these children are more likely to be forced out of school and into the job market to sustain their households. So, the gaps between the haves and have nots in India will further widen and crystallise over the years to come.

    These trends will also become visible between countries around the world. As per UNDP estimates, around 86 per cent of children attending primary schools in low human development countries are currently not receiving an education. The same figure for countries that are high on the human development stands at 20 per cent. The effective out-of-school rates are estimated to regress to levels seen in the 1980s. The world is, thus, faced with the prospect of losing indispensable developmental progress that it has achieved over the last few decades. The levels of poverty and inequality within and across countries are bound to exacerbate.

    When faced with such a prospect, the only difference a country can make is by providing sufficient social protection and safety nets to prevent the regressive movement of people below the poverty line. Access to basic services can also be expanded through innovative means. Several states like Kerala and Bengal have moved their virtual classes to television sets, which has a wider penetration that internet even in rural areas. Even Doordarshan and All India Radio are broadcasting various teaching courses. This could be extended on a larger scale for central boards of education as well. The country needs to work towards reducing the vast inequality in education access to prevent accentuating its societal inequality in the future.


    Amit Kapoor is chair, Institute for Competitiveness and visiting scholar, Stanford University. Chirag Yadav is senior researcher, Institute for Competitiveness.
    (Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
    (Catch all the Business News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on The Economic Times.)

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    11 Comments on this Story

    Sivaramakrishnan Jayaraman54 days ago
    If only every individual starts to treat other the way he expects others to treat him, equality will only remain a dream................. Generally speaking, taking the entire population as a block, Equality NEVER Existed and It Will Not EXIST. Even within a group, Equality Never Existed and It Will Not Exist....
    nag54 days ago
    this shows what the govts needs to do ... public health care to all indians at earliest possible.
    the work should start on war footing.
    fortunately, we have a leadership who know how to use technology to win elections - they have all the required data related to population, demographic profile . only requirement is the intent , heart and commitment
    Manoranjan Dutta54 days ago
    A very dismal scenario for the poor and underprivileged who were brought above poverty line in recent years. The digital divide within urban or rural areas will affect the vulnerable most. But we must not leave the perpetrator of the crime who should be forced to pay for the loss of the disadvantaged group whose championship they claim.
    The Economic Times