Intersectional Inequality Inhibits Digital Substitution aimed at Mitigating COVID-19 Effects in South Africa

The social distancing and lockdown measures that were put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 has led to an inevitable surge in the uptake of digital services globally. The lockdown policies, aimed at decelerating cases of COVID-19, resulted in governments and businesses relocating services, communication and work activities, where they could, online. Governments provide services such as social protection, disease burden monitoring, contact tracing, and dissemination of COVID-19 related news and updates. Companies allowed their employees to work from home, education service providers shifted to virtual teaching and learning, and there was an increase in the demand for job vacancies for online working arrangements (OECD, 2021). The rise in demand for digital services such as video-conferencing and online content drove Internet traffic up more than 60% compared to the pre-COVID-19 period (OECD, 2020). In South Africa, the results from the 2021 RIA COVID-19 Rapid Response Phone Survey show that the lockdown and social distancing also led to a rise in use of the Internet – up from 53% of the population prior to the pandemic to 62% during the first year of the pandemic. The results however indicate that a significant number of people (almost 40%) remain marginalised from services, unable to digitally substitute their work, schooling, banking, and shopping or even unable to access COVID-19 relief programmes. The sudden push to move services online has left marginalised communities more vulnerable. As the survey shows, 40% of people who could not get online during the first year of the pandemic during the hard lockdowns were from poorer households. As a result they have felt the worst impact of job losses with scholars in these households effectively losing a year of education. This policy brief, which is based on the findings of the 2021 RIA COVID-19 Rapid Response Phone Survey (Covid-19 Rapid Response phone survey methodology), seeks to demonstrate the impacts of COVID-19 and its associated public policy responses on digital and intersectional inequality in South Africa from a demand-side perspective.