Internet connectivity has shot up over the last year, with most new users attributing their new connections to the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdowns. However, a new nationwide survey found that remote work, education and healthcare are still not equally available to all, even among those with digital access.
How was the study designed?
LIRNEasia, an Asia Pacific think tank focussed on digital policy, tied up with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), to take part in a global study funded by the Canada’s International Development Centre to assess the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 by analysing access to services, with a focus on digital technologies in healthcare, education and work. A face-to-face survey was conducted between March and August 2021, with a sample group of 7,000 individuals from all States, barring Kerala. Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Assam had 500 households each participating in the survey, while the remaining 5,000 households were spread across the rest of the country. The sample was nationally representative of the population above 15 years in terms of gender, socio-economic classifications and the urban-rural divide.
What did the study find about the pandemic’s impact on Internet access and use?
The survey found that 47% of the population are Internet users, a significant jump from the 19% who were identified as Internet users in late 2017. An extrapolation of respondents would indicate that 34 crore people in the country were already online before 2020. An additional 8 crore came online in 2020, and at least 5 crore have already become new Internet users in 2021. Of those who first started using the Internet in 2020, 43% said they came online due to COVID-19.
Men still use the Internet more than women and there is a 37% gender gap among users, although this is half of the 57% gap present four years ago. Similarly, the rural-urban gap has dropped from 48% in 2017 to just 20% now as more rural residents come online. The biggest divide, however, is education. Among those with college education, 89% are Internet users, compared to 60% of those who completed secondary school. Only 23% of those who dropped out of school after Class 8, and 9% of those without any education, are able to use the Internet.
Among non-users, lack of awareness is still the biggest hurdle although the percentage of non-users who said they do not know what the Internet is dropped from 82% to 49% over the last four years. Increasingly, lack of access to devices and lack of skills are the reason why people do not go online.
Did increased digital connectivity help in access to remote education?
The survey found that 80% of school-age children in the country had no access to remote education at all during the 18 months that schools were shut. This happened even though 64% of households with school-aged children actually had Internet connections. Less than a third of children in such homes were able to leverage connectivity into classes of any sort, mostly because of lack of larger screen devices as well as a lack of preparedness among schools. However, the situation was significantly worse for those homes without Internet connections, where only 8% of children received any sort of remote education. Apart from not having any devices, poor 3G/4G signal and high data cost were listed as the biggest hurdles.
Even among the 20% who received education, only half had access to live online classes which required a good Internet connection and exclusive use of a device. Most depended on recorded lessons and WhatsApp messages which could be sent to a parent’s phone and downloaded at leisure, while others were able to have more direct contact with teachers via phone calls or physical visits.
The situation was significantly worse among those from lower socio-economic classes, or where the head of the household had lower education levels. Nationwide, 38% of households said at least one child had dropped out of school completely due to COVID-19.
How did digital access impact work patterns?
Only 10% of those employed during the lockdowns were able to work from home. There were significant geographical variations, with one on five Delhi residents working from home in comparison to 13% in Maharashtra and just 3% in Tamil Nadu. Predictably enough, those in finance, insurance, information technology and communications fields formed the biggest chunk of those who were able to do remote work during the lockdowns. However, less than one in three workers even in these professions was able to work from home, the survey found. Even among this group, only 35% continued to work remotely after each lockdown period, while 16% had a hybrid work life, returning to physical workplaces on select days only.
A significant minority of those engaged in remote work ran into device and connectivity challenges. About 27% said they were forced to share devices with another household member, while 16% said the available devices were unsuitable for work and another 16% faced poor network quality. About 43% also said remote work meant they were forced to undertake more tasks and work longer hours than usual.
How did Internet access or lack of it affect healthcare during the pandemic?
About 15% of the sample respondents said they required healthcare access for non-COVID related purposes during the most severe national and State lockdown. Of the 14% who required ongoing treatment for chronic conditions, over a third missed at least one appointment due to the lockdown. Telemedicine and online doctor consultations surged during these times, but only 38% said they were able to access such services.
With regard to medical information on COVID-19 symptoms and treatments, about 40% of respondents depended on television channels for advice as their most trusted source, well above the quarter of respondents who depended on face-to-face interactions. Only 1% went online to websites for information, although 4% depended on social media and 2% on the Aarogya Setu app.