Digital inequalities in time of pandemic: COVID-19 exposure risk profiles and new forms of vulnerability


  • Laura Robinson
  • Jeremy Schulz
  • Aneka Khilnani
  • Hiroshi Ono
  • Shelia R. Cotten
  • Noah McClain
  • Lloyd Levine
  • Wenhong Chen
  • Gejun Huang
  • Antonio A. Casilli
  • Paola Tubaro
  • Matías Dodel
  • Anabel Quan-Haase
  • Maria Laura Ruiu
  • Massimo Ragnedda
  • Deb Aikat
  • Natalia Tolentino



In this article, we argue that new kinds of risk are emerging with the COVID-19 virus, and that these risks are unequally distributed. As we expose to view, digital inequalities and social inequalities are rendering certain subgroups significantly more vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19. Vulnerable populations bearing disproportionate risks include the social isolated, older adults, penal system subjects, digitally disadvantaged students, gig workers, and last-mile workers. Therefore, we map out the intersection between COVID-19 risk factors and digital inequalities on each of these populations in order to examine how the digitally resourced have additional tools to mitigate some of the risks associated with the pandemic. We shed light on how the ongoing pandemic is deepening key axes of social differentiation, which were previously occluded from view. These newly manifested forms of social differentiation can be conceived along several related dimensions. At their most general and abstract, these risks have to do with the capacity individuals have to control the risk of pathogen exposure. In order to fully manage exposure risk, individuals must control their physical environment to the greatest extent possible in order to prevent contact with potentially compromised physical spaces. In addition, they must control their social interactional environment to the greatest extent possible in order to minimize their contacts with potentially infected individuals. All else equal, those individuals who exercise more control over their exposure risk — on the basis of their control over their physical and social interactional environments — stand a better chance of staying healthy than those individuals who cannot manage exposure risk. Individuals therefore vary in terms of what we call their COVID-19 exposure risk profile (CERPs). CERPs hinge on preexisting forms of social differentiation such as socioeconomic status, as individuals with more economic resources at their disposal can better insulate themselves from exposure risk. Alongside socioeconomic status, one of the key forms of social differentiation connected with CERPs is digital (dis)advantage. Ceteris paribus, individuals who can more effectively digitize key parts of their lives enjoy better CERPs than individuals who cannot digitize these life realms. Therefore we believe that digital inequalities are directly and increasingly related to both life-or-death exposure to COVID-19, as well as excess deaths attributable to the larger conditions generated by the pandemic.

Author Biographies

Laura Robinson

Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Santa Clara University

Jeremy Schulz

Researcher at the UC Berkeley Institute for the Study of Societal Issues and a Fellow at the Cambridge Institute

Aneka Khilnani

Medical student at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C.

Hiroshi Ono

Professor of Human Resources Management at Hitotsubashi University Business School and Affiliated Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University

Shelia R. Cotten

MSU Foundation Professor and the Associate Chair for Research at Michigan State University

Noah McClain

Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Illinois Institute of Technology

Lloyd Levine

Senior Policy Fellow at UC Riverside’s School of Public Policy and a former member of the California State Legislature

Wenhong Chen

Associate professor of media studies and sociology and the founding co-director of the Center for entertainment and Media Industries at the University of Texas at Austin

Gejun Huang

Ph.D. degree in media studies from the Department of Radio-TV-Film, UT Austin

Antonio A. Casilli

Professor of sociology at Telecom Paris, the telecommunication school of the Institut Polytechnique de Paris, and a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Institute on Innovation (i3)

Paola Tubaro

Associate Research Professor at the National Centre for Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique)

Matías Dodel

Associate Professor of Communication at Universidad Católica del Uruguay

Anabel Quan-Haase

Professor of Information and Media Studies and Sociology at Western University and director of the SocioDigital Media Lab

Maria Laura Ruiu

Lecturer at Northumbria University (Newcastle upon Tyne)

Massimo Ragnedda

Senior Lecturer in Mass Communication at Northumbria University, Newcastle, U.K.

Deb Aikat

Faculty member since 1995 in the Hussman School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Natalia Tolentino

Graduate student in education at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly)




How to Cite

Robinson, L., Schulz, J., Khilnani, A., Ono, H., Cotten, S. R., McClain, N., … Tolentino, N. (2020). Digital inequalities in time of pandemic: COVID-19 exposure risk profiles and new forms of vulnerability. First Monday, 25(7).