Tom HASHIMOTO [a] [b] (ORCID iD : https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6534-9375)

Aras ZIRGULIS [a] (ORCID iD : https://orcid.org/0000-0002-8340-219X)

Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice [Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series]

Vol. XXIII, Issue 2, pp. 173-192

https://doi.org/10.54885/ISCV8624 | Download PDF

[a] ISM University of Management and Economics, Vilnius, Lithuania

[b] Corresponding author: tomhas@faculty.ism.lt


Although recent studies show widening socio-economic divisions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many such divisions were already identified as social cleavages. Scholars and observers tend to view the world in a dichotomous manner, overgeneralising their analyses along known cleavages. Therefore, the relevance of our work as scholars is at risk and we, the scholars of the contemporary world, are “vulnerable” to the temptation of ignoring the details, nuances, and complexities. The uneven impact of and recovery from the pandemic is not necessarily binary – for example, a refusal to follow the medical consensus (e.g. social distancing, vaccination) can be observed on both sides of many cleavages. Against such a background, this paper first characterises the pandemic as a medical, socio-economic, and information crisis. With the former two “pillars” resembling the known cleavages, the third pillar goes beyond the physical access to information and deals with the people’s perception of various risks. Such a behavioural angle to the vulnerability – labelled “risk literacy” – highlights the phenomenon of “digital divide” and shows a promising feature as an additional analytical tool. By familiarising ourselves with the people’s varying risk perceptions, we increase our own literacy against the risk of overgeneralisation.

Keywords: risk literacy, social cleavages, information crisis, digital divide, risk perception, vulnerability, behavioural analysis, COVID-19, pandemic



“Pre-existing inequalities in the United States and most countries around the world made ordinary people vulnerable to the dual blows of the current public health and economic crisis,” states the Institute for Policy Studies ([2021]), one of the leading progressive think tanks in the US, in its Inequality.org project. This sentiment of the socio-economic divisions being widened has been echoed by almost all international organisations (e.g. Ferreira 2021; United Nations Development Programme 2020). In general, they highlight the borderlessness of the pandemic, the unequal impact of and recovery from the pandemic, and a call for holistic and substantial approaches to policymaking. As such, governmental and non-governmental organisations alike host relevant public events with high social media presence (e.g. World Bank 2021) and many intellectuals share their opinions on major news outlets (e.g. Goldin 2021). It is a familiar process of social mobilisation, raising awareness of and building legitimacy for the socio-economic programmes which advocate a sustainable and inclusive growth.

At the same time, from the issue of demographic divide to the on-going financial crisis, our intuitional understanding of “vulnerability,” the theme of most contributions in this issue, is typically binary and often dichotomous. For example, in the US, we expect female, old, rural, poorly educated, and non-White populations to be vulnerable, while male, young, urban, educated, and White populations to be resilient to external shocks. The divisions “North/South” and “Western/non-Western” are likely to be also relevant on the international level. While many of us recognise that categories such as gender, education and race are not necessarily binary, scholars highlight various confrontations between the binarized groups expressed in elections, strikes, riots etc. Thus, as new social, economic, and political environments continue to emerge, scholars and observers of contemporary world scramble to explain the ongoing phenomena in a dichotomous manner. From the theme of “trust” to ethics, they feature the fights put forward by a certain group against another group, institution, or state, as if various class struggles can explain the whole world.

In relation to the current pandemic, scholars investigate how the pre-existing socio-economic divides and systemic discrimination have remained or even been enhanced during the crisis (e.g. Marshburn et al. 2021). While the negative psychological effects of lockdown and general stresses have been widely reported (e.g. Smith et al. 2021), anti-lockdown protesters are often labelled as illogical and irrational, or even “indifferent to their own persistence” (Bratich 2021). Once again, this is a dichotomous understanding of the contemporary world, placing those “logical” and “rational” against those “illogical” and “irrational.” What is emphasised here is not the claim of rationality, but the absence of variation, the lack of details, and the desire for simplicity. On the one hand, some people are vulnerable not only to economic shocks per se, but also to misinformation and their own (misunderstood) risk perception. On the other hand, we (scholars, observers, policymakers, intellectuals etc.) are vulnerable to the established theories and conceptual frameworks which have ubiquitously been illustrating vulnerabilities along the physically attributed (or seemingly externally “visible”) characteristics such as (binary) gender, age, race, religion, education, geography, income, and so on. As one may read in the preamble of the 2021 edition of the SCOPE: Science of Politics conference (where a version of this article was presented), “we [scholars of politics] are also vulnerable in contemporary politics” since “the relevance of studying political phenomena” can easily be questioned and jeopardised by overgeneralisation ([SCOPE] 2021, emphases removed).

This paper, therefore, aims to address the limitations to such a dichotomous approach by illustrating the shifting social divide/cleavages throughout the so-called COVID-19 crisis. The crisis is thematised into three pillars. First, it is a medical crisis where the physiological vulnerability puts the governments on alert. Second, it is an economic crisis where the social vulnerability fuelled political unrests. Third, it is a communication crisis on the information vulnerability, where a certain group of people (often a young, urban population) quickly adapted to the new reality, excavating opportunities and swimming through various rules and regulations aided by IT (mobile) tools. Coincidentally, anti-lockdown protestors also organised their activities on IT platforms, thus, the physical accessibility to IT infrastructure alone cannot depict the nuances of social cleavages. In other words, we shall focus on how people modify their behaviours according to the information they receive. The goal of this paper is to add such a behavioural angle to the discussion of vulnerabilities and to caution against our tendency to overuse the known social cleavages.

These pillars certainly overlap each other both in terms of timeline, as well as conceptual framework, but the focus is on the social cleavages shifting throughout the crisis from the demographic ones to the geographical and socio-economic ones. While these cleavages are all familiar to political scientists and alike, none of them alone can explain the entire crisis. That said, having experienced the whole cycle, those who have a higher information literacy can accommodate themselves and prepare for similar medical and social crises in the future. This paper proposes to focus on information vulnerability, based on the ability to access, validate, and transmit information, a concept that we refer to as “risk literacy.” As the urban population tends to have a higher “risk literacy” than the rural areas, the uneven distribution of socio-economic resilience and recovery from the crisis makes information vulnerability more of a long-term phenomenon, which is a key characteristic to make it a viable analytical tool in the studies of the contemporary world and policymaking. The rest of the paper is divided into three sections. In the first one (Pillars of the COVID-19 crisis) we comment on the developments in the first two pillars (i.e. medical and socio-economic crisis) and highlights various social cleavages associated to them. While many of these cleavages are well-known to the scholars of the contemporary socio-economic dynamics, the section serves as a shared background for the following sections. The next section (“Digital divide” and regional resilience) investigates the relationship between “digital divide” (in relation to the third pillar of the crisis) and regional resilience. As a way of conclusion, the last section (Risk literacy of scholars and the “vulnerability in three acts”) comments how the conceptual framework of “risk literacy” is intended to increase our own risk literacy in the study of politics. Together, these three sections are dubbed as “vulnerability in three acts.”

Pillars of the COVID-19 crisis

“What does it mean to be vulnerable?” – the editorial of the prominent medical journal Lancet asks (2020:1089). “The strategies most recommended to control the spread of COVID-19 – social distancing and frequent handwashing – are not easy for the millions of people who live in highly dense communities with precarious or insecure housing, and poor sanitation and access to clean water,” it continues. Malnutrition and the spread of immunocompromised diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, are critical obstacles, while “the response to COVID-19 will come at the expense of treating other diseases” (Ibid.). Thus, the COVID-19 crisis is first and foremost a medical crisis which deeply intertwines with the general socio-economic environments.

The crisis highlighted the gaps in many layers/levels of socio-economic geographies, between the so-called Global North and Global South, between the developed and less developed regions, and between the urban and rural areas. The general hygiene and utility infrastructure is surely an indicator of vulnerability, and we do not need COVID-19 to restate the situation. Yet, for many countries that restricted the movement of people as a containment policy, obtaining vaccines became not only a medical remedy to slow down the spread of coronavirus, but also an economic remedy to sustain a certain level of trade flows, especially in the business sector where interpersonal communication carries weight as a source of tacit knowledge (Faulconbridge 2006; Gertler 2003). To untangle this complexity and inspired by more substantial recent analyses such as Gethin, Martínez-Toledano & Piketty (2021), this section lists several social cleavages linked to the COVID-19 crisis. It is by no means an exhaustive catalogue, but it aims to highlight uneven and ambivalent trends of the crisis.

The first on the list is age – the older the population is, the more vulnerable would be to a medical shock, and a combination of old age and pre-existing medical conditions is often fatal in the case of COVID-19 (Banerjee et al. 2020). The old population tends to live in rural areas with scattered access to medical facilities, making the geography of medical crisis uneven between rural and urban areas (even though congestion in cities tilts the risk towards urban areas). Then again, according to the World Health Organisation, the top 10 countries in terms of life expectancy at birth (2019) are Japan, Switzerland, South Korea, Singapore, Spain, Cyprus, Australia, Italy, Israel, and Norway (World Health Organisation [2021]). The “wealthier” nations naturally have older populations, and while these countries are more exposed to medical risks, they may easily be more resilient to medical shocks. Furthermore, the Conservative Party in the UK and the Republican Party in the US, for example, tend to attract old voters, and these parties have been incumbent at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. These governments surely take demography such as age as a factor in policymaking. Therefore, age as a social cleavage has weak explanatory power in analysing the pandemic as a medical crisis.

Similarly, while the level of general hygiene and utility/medical infrastructure accessibility can illustrate the uneven impact of the pandemic, it was the capacity of hospitals which put the governments in the so-called developed countries on alert. The congestion of population made the urban areas vulnerable to the spread of the virus, while the travel ban, quarantine, lockdown, and other restrictive measures are viewed both as a necessary containment policy and a threat to freedom. In particular, the number of anti-government rallies seems to have increased in the recent years despite a commonly understood medical risk of large public gatherings during a pandemic of infectious disease. Here, we clearly observe a mixture of medical and socio-political crises, or even a shift from the former to the latter. From the US to Poland, COVID-19 was the focus of the coincidental elections. In the US, the frustration of losing the presidential election was expressed as the Capitol attack, while in Poland, the ruling party sought to change the electoral rules shortly before the election in the name of medical security. In Japan, the prolonged impact of the pandemic accompanied by the decision not to re-postpone the Tokyo Olympics has costed the prime minister Suga’s tenure despite the ruling party holding on to the government. In other words, social cleavages, often visible in voting behaviours, were explored, or even “exploited,” by various political actors, and physiological vulnerabilities in a medical crisis are coated with demographical cleavages for party support.

As touched in the introduction (e.g. Marshburn et al. 2021), the COVID-19 pandemic as a socio-economic crisis hit the population unevenly along the known social cleavages. As the economy slows down due to the pandemic, this unevenness in the impact of and recovery from the crisis is nothing new. The social distancing was often spelled out as some degree of lockdowns, with restaurants, bars, clubs, and hotels forced to close or operate with a limited capacity, and many jobs have been lost. We therefore assume that the urban, poorly educated, and non-White population disproportionally suffer from the pandemic. Curiously, the various case studies on the labour market configurations in the hospitality industry have not found a consensus (Manoharan & Singal 2017) – the evidence to support the labour diversity in the hospitality industry in terms of gender, age, race, ethnicity, and nationality is far from robust, but more than anecdotal. In other words, it is hasty to conclude that, for example, poorly educated, non-skilled populations were particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic, because such a socio-economic vulnerability is nothing special under the pandemic, and university students – an example of educated, skilled population – also engage in the hospitality industry during their studies, challenging our binarized hypotheses. It is our (i.e. observers’) understanding of social cleavages which shapes such a binary understanding of the world where the unevenness is polarised between two extremes when the reality might be more complex and ambiguous.

Perhaps one phenomenon that stood out in this crisis (and hence, epistemologically valuable) is vaccine diplomacy. The aforementioned editorial of Lancet (2020) mentions the trade-offs which many less developed countries are facing. One of them is the trade-off between the treatments of COVID-19 and of other diseases. Additionally, due to the increased demand and limited supply, the market rhetoric pushed the vaccine price upward (Mancini, Kuchler & Kahn 2021). Oxfam (2021) reports that the COVID-19 vaccines are several times more expensive than other vaccines – while, in addition to the different production costs, the novelty of vaccines may explain the price difference, it is simply an extra burden for many countries, particularly when the medical crisis spilled over to economic crises. As the travel restriction to those who are unvaccinated remains imposed in the majority of countries, the size of economy certainly influences the speed of recovery from the pandemic, medically, as well as on economic grounds. As of April 2021, 84 countries use a Pfizer vaccine while 130 countries opted for a cheaper AstraZeneca vaccine (which is considered as less “effective” compared to Pfizer); Sputnik is used by 28 countries and Sinopharm and Sinovac by 35 and 23 countries respectively (Gallagher 2021). Soon, we will know more about the “vaccine diplomacy” of Russia and China, but it seems to be clear that many countries may not have had a choice, and they paid a lower effectiveness and a rumoured risk of blood clot as a price of their slow economic development.

The message of this section is so far twofold. First, the unevenness observed in the impact of and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic (as a medical and socio-economic crisis) is less likely to be a “new” phenomenon in terms of the analysis of the contemporary world, as it simply reaffirms many existing theories and studies on social cleavages. Second, as the observed facts (e.g. infected or not, lost jobs or not) are highly binary, we tend to binarize their causal relationships as well, ignoring the nuances and ambiguities stemming from the geographically and demographically overlapping presence of multiple social cleavages. Vaccine diplomacy is one exception where the phenomenon seems to be unusual and binary: the developed countries have more choices, while the others have limited choices. That said, in investigating the epistemological value of “vulnerability” as a conceptual framework, the third “pillar” of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to emerge. That is a communication crisis. The next section deals with this aspect and links it with the concept of “risk literacy.”

“Digital divide” and regional resilience

To briefly characterise, the communication crisis in reaction to the pandemic refers to a variety of behavioural patterns and their consequential conflicts observed – the patterns, however, may not differ along the known social cleavages, thus increasing the value of these observations as an additional analytical tool. To repeat the quote from Lancet, “[t]he strategies most recommended to control the spread of COVID-19 – social distancing and frequent handwashing – are not easy for the millions of people” (2020:1089), and the infrastructure and public finance were covered in the first two pillars of the COVID-19 crisis. The third pillar is that despite the widespread and common understanding with respect to social distancing and frequent handwashing, many people intentionally do not follow and even disobey the public order. Such a diversity in (il)logical behaviours (cf. Bratich 2021) can be labelled as a behavioural social cleavage.

This section, therefore, first comments on the differences in the digital infrastructure and information accessibility on both regional and individual level. Then, it will highlight the phenomenon of “digital divide,” where the usage of digital infrastructure (hence information processing) differs among the residents even when it is fairly and evenly accessible. Finally, it links the “digital divide” to the conceptual framework of “resilience” where risk management becomes a key decision-making tool. The ability to foresee and conceptualise risks is labelled as “risk literacy,” and the following section discusses how the “risk literacy” framework also increases our own risk literacy as the observers of the contemporary world. As the pandemic is an on-going phenomenon and many empirical studies are yet to be conducted, the authors acknowledge the weakness in terms of the refinement of the conceptual setting (and references to the existing literature). That said, one of the main goals of this paper is to caution against the overutilisation of the known social cleavages as the general explanation. Thus, we hope that this section ignites further discussions to link various behavioural traits with regional resilience to external shocks.

Being digitalised, information spreads instantly and globally, and the contemporary world has been transformed by a great magnitude of information sharing (Castells 2020). Surely, the regions which lack utility infrastructures (e.g. electricity, water, sanitation, transportation) are likely to be behind in telecommunication infrastructure rollouts, but that can be analytically covered in the previous two pillars and the existing observations on socio-economic cleavages. What is astonishing here is the exponential access to information. The number of mobile devices reached 5 billion worldwide with a finding that “a median of 76% [of adults] across 18 advanced economies surveyed have smartphones” in 2018 (Silver 2019). While the survey also points out the difference in smartphone ownership along the usual suspects of social cleavages (i.e. age, education, and gender; also see Inkinen, Merisalo & Makkonen 2018), once again, they can be covered by the analyses of the first two pillars. As the world population is about to reach 8 billion, “5 billion” and “a median of 76%” indicate a widening base for the information accessibility globally. One barrier which is rapidly disappearing is the language. For example, since its launch in 2006 Google Translate reached 500 million users in 2016 (Turovsky 2016), and the app was downloaded by more than 1 billion times by March 2021 (Pitman 2021). Its linguistic accuracy aside, it is safe to assume that there exists a level playing field today as far as the information accessibility in the major cities is concerned.

That said, such an exponential growth in terms of access to information means a widening information gap due to a time lag of digital device adaptation. Taking social media as an example, any mobile devices send and receive information. Today, not only media elites and intellectuals post and share their socio-political observations with a wider public, but also any individuals and organisations can (pseudonymously) contribute to public debates. In other words, while the “level playing field” of information accessibility expands geographically, the inaccessibility to telecommunication devices is increasingly “penalised” in our daily life. For instance, from the COVID-19 “green” passes developed within EU to the digital passenger locator form (dPLF), the modern-day governance is becoming more digitalised on the mobile platforms, with apps, QR codes, and near-field communication (NFC) becoming the standard tools. Even when the regulations are communicated in, say, French, Google Translate can translate the texts in any format from website to photo. If you are not sure of anything (e.g. documents required to travel from Poland to Canada), you can google, post questions on various Facebook fora and Instagram stories, or ask the chatbots managed by airliners and ticket booking platforms. Thus, any competent users of mobile devices can access, interpret, and verify information with an astonishing speed anywhere in the world, as long as the mobile signal is strong enough. Those who are not familiar with these tools and “methods” to obtain information (e.g. Google Translate, Facebook forum, chatbot) will be left behind, and the gap in the amount of information obtained between these two groups is continuously widening. Once not only social distancing, but also remote working become a widely applied standard, even the interpersonal communication may be dropped from the list of information tools.

Of course, what the users do with the accessibility is a different question. Below there is an indexed figure on the number of Google search for “COVID” and “COVID vaccine” including the variations such as “coronavirus,” as well as minor alternations/mistakes such as “vaccine.” As soon as the pandemic hit the US and EU, the number of searches skyrocketed, and it marked the historical peak in the week of 22 March 2020 shortly after many major economies implemented lockdowns and quarantines. The governments of advanced economies and the WHO were not optimistic about the vaccine rollout at that point, but still, we can see people already began to search online the expression “COVID vaccine.” Since then, the number has fluctuated, presumably people obtaining the information on COVID-19 through other channels such as Facebook and Twitter. Pfizer-BioNTech submitted an emergency use authorisation request in the US in November 2020, followed shortly after by Oxford-AstraZeneca and Janssen. The number of searches for “COVID vaccine” increased each time major milestones such as clinical trial result and vaccine authorisations hit the news. However, the number of searches for “COVID vaccine” has been far smaller than for “COVID,” and the former did not show such a rapid increase like the latter. Considering the persistent objections towards the vaccine mandates in certain parts of the world, one can assume that many anti-vaxxers made up their mind without even searching it on Google. Although a far more serious and rigorous empirical research needs to be conducted, this preliminary review reveals that the access to Google, for example, cannot describe the uneven usage of information – some users simply do not collect (seemingly) necessary information during their decision-making processes.

Figure 1. Number of Google searches globally (indexed as the peak = 100) with “COVID” (blue) and “COVID vaccine” (red) (PDF)

The Pew Research Center reported that “those who rely on social media for news are less likely to get the facts right about the coronavirus and politics and more likely to hear some unproven claims” (Mitchell et al. 2020; see also Serrano-Cinca, Muñoz-Soro & Brusca 2018). The oft-toxic relationship between social (as opposed to edited) media and politics has been a popular analytical framework since the 2016 US presidential election (e.g. Enli 2017; Wells et al. 2020), and the satirical response from comedic TV shows such as The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live was also scrutinised as sources of political influence (e.g. Blankenship 2020; Becker 2020). As far as COVID-19 is concerned, while the so-called “infodemic” – a rapid spread of information irrespective of its accuracy – is found deeply rooted in social media (e.g. Adekoya & Fasae 2021), the same social media is used to strengthen the narratives supporting the social distancing (e.g. Mohamad 2020). To put it simply, we still do not know if the rapid information sharing via largely unsupervised media channels is beneficial to the modern society where the freedom from oppression is a key political value. What is sure is that even when information is fairly and evenly accessible, the usage of information (where to collect information, what to do with the information) varies, and that this “digital divide” does not necessarily mirror the known social cleavages.

Calzada & Cobo (2015), as well as Hatuka & Zur (2020) note that the so-called “digital divide” is more than the differences in the physical access to digital infrastructure and that the concept shall include the degree of digital participation and digital risk awareness (such as privacy). The building of “smart cities” and the digitalisation of governance are likely to be inefficient and ineffective without increasing the proportion of such “smart residents.” Socio-economic exclusions, therefore, come not only extrinsically from social structures and hierarchy, but also intrinsically from various self-exclusions such as distancing from digital participation (e.g. Serrano-Cinca, Muñoz-Soro & Brusca 2018) and shunning from information validation with multiple sources. An interesting finding from Hatuka & Zur (2020) is that the digital participation is more linked to the potential participants’ needs than their digital skills. Therefore, cultivating the “needs” to become competent information recipients to avoid being misinformed (i.e. becoming a risk literate) leads to softening the impact of information crisis. In short, having more “smart residents” or “risk literates” naturally reduces the spread of misinformation and increases resilience against external shocks, let alone a pandemic.

Unfortunately, at this stage of conceptual debate, it is difficult to highlight the direct connection between the concept and the existing theories of social cleavages. Things are not so easy for at least three reasons. First, by virtue of the participatory (i.e. inclusive) politics, those who have made up their mind to opt out from the information flow supervised by the experts and elites in the field (e.g. medicine) have equal footage in societal decision-making. When they get involved in harming actions such as the Capitol attack in the US, the existing socio-legal remedies may be effective. Otherwise, we are not yet ready to expel them from digital participation (even though Facebook is currently following this path). Such dichotomous confrontations simply deepen the digital divide (cf. Bratich 2021), and not necessarily strengthen the regional resilience. Second, the need to become a risk “literate” has a trade-off with other needs in terms of time. Somewhere in the e-universe, there may be a truth. It might be on the 8th page of your Google search or in the link to a news article posted on Twitter – but where are the search heuristics? What is the “rule of thumb” to comb through uncountable information pieces? It is not difficult to point out the information crisis and the illiteracy in terms of information validation and risk perception. It is even possible to label and distinguish “illogical” behaviours from “logical” behaviours. Yet, it is whole another issue to convince and encourage those “illogical” digital participants to search for more information and to close the digital divide. Perhaps, this difficulty is the reason why we tend to stop our analyses by pointing out the binary conclusion of (il)logical behaviours along the known social cleavages. Third, even if the above problem is mitigated through comprehensive, systematic, and centralised information sharing from the side of the experts, elites, intellectuals, and policymakers, “trust” is the key to combat the spread of misinformation. Nam (2014), for example, highlights the trust in government as one of the major determinants of e-government use, and the study can easily be transposed to the trust in experts and major media outlets. In his political science classic Making Democracy Work, Putnam (1993) has already linked the trust in the government with the concepts of civic community and social capital, and his understanding of regional differences in terms of civic engagement connects the participatory trust-building with the socio-economic stability and growth. Therefore, it is not a huge leap in thought to combine, on the one hand, risk literacy and responsible behaviour, and, on the other hand, participatory information sharing (i.e. closing the digital divide) and regional resilience to external shocks, including the pandemic.

Risk literacy of scholars and the “vulnerability in three acts”

The overarching goal of this paper is to highlight the nuances and complexities observed in terms of the uneven impact of and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. On one hand, the socio-economic discrimination and inequalities continue to exist and are even widened during the crisis. While the pandemic as a medical and socio-economic crisis underlined many known demographic and socio-economic cleavages, “illogical” and “irrational” behaviours against the medically reasoned social orders such as social distancing and vaccine mandates can be observed on both sides of such cleavages. Scholars and other observers of the contemporary world are often tempted to seek guidance in the established theories and may overgeneralise the analyses on the pandemic in a binary and dichotomous manner. We expect, for example, male, young, urban, educated, and White population to be more informed and more resilient against external medical and economic shocks, while female, old, rural, poorly educated, and non-White population to be misinformed or excluded from crucial information and thus less resilient. Referring to the conceptual framework of “digital divide,” this paper cautioned against such a hasty conclusion and called for an investigation into the sources of self-exclusion from information, distrust in government and elites, and apathy towards participatory decision-making.

After all, the “risk literacy” is twofold. First, it is a concept to measure the awareness with respect to information and behaviour. The use of information infrastructure, the attentive attitude towards misinformation, and the responsible and informed behavioural choice are all related to the risks both the individuals and society face. Consequently, a higher risk literacy and a reduced digital divide would strengthen the regional (societal) resilience. Second, by acknowledging the ambiguity (i.e. non-binary observation) in terms of risk perception/literacy, we can explore the depth of complexity in the unevenness witnessed during the pandemic. The relevance of studying the anti-vaxxers’ rhetoric, for example, is nothing but confrontational when we label them simply as “illogical.” However, despite difficulties in fully grasping its causal mechanisms, risk illiteracy is a phenomenon which may be worth to explore as a constructive and inclusive way of thinking. The science of politics in this instance, therefore, shall depart from the known social cleavages, which tend to be binary and dichotomous, and focus on more nuanced and complex behavioural understandings of the contemporary world.

Certainly, this is an ongoing proposal partly because it deals with the present-day issues without sufficient empirical data and partly because it asks us to be social scientists and to put our personal frustrations against those “illiterates” aside. To take a metaphor from theatre, our Act I is a plot where an inciting incident – the pandemic in this case – is exposed. The hero/ine, the scholar, scrambled to the scene to engage in a meaningful dialogue with other actors – but, at this point, the character is not yet developed, and there are many unknowns as to the motives of the other characters. Our Act II is a character arc, where the hero/ine faces challenges and complexities – digital divide corresponds here. Our Act III is a resolution, where an epistemological “step-forward” is communicated in a beautiful monologue. What the authors hope is that this reflection on risk literacy will act as a draft for such a monologue in the near future. Then, we will be able to check overgeneralisation in our analyses and strengthen our relevance as scientific communicators, contributing to strengthening our own resilience.


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All links were verified by the editors and found to be functioning before the publication of this text in December 2021.


Tom HASHIMOTO, LLM, DPhil (Oxon), FHEA (ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6534-9375) is Director of Financial Economics Programme and Associate Professor of Financial Economics at ISM University of Management and Economics, and a continuous member of Linacre College, University of Oxford. His recent publications include "The geography of financial and business services in Poland," European Urban and Regional Studies (with Dariusz Wójcik) and Reviewing European Union Accession (Boston/Leiden: Brill, with Michael Rhimes, eds.). tomhas@faculty.ism.lt

Aras ZIRGULIS, PhD (ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-8340-219X) is Associate Professor of Economics at ISM University of Management and Economics. His recent publications include "Controversies regarding the TTIP Agreement in the academic literature," Review of Economics and Economic Methodology (with Maik Huettinger) and "Impact of corporate taxation on unemployment," Journal of Business Economics and Management (with Tadas Šarapovas). arazir@ism.lt

The authors contributed equally to the design and implementation of the research, to the analysis of the results and to the writing of the manuscript.


A version of this paper was presented at the 7th international interdisciplinary conference of political research SCOPE: Science of Politics (University of Bucharest, 20-24 September 2021). The authors would like to thank SCOPE participants for feedback, as well as the anonymous reviewers for their comments.



The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


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HASHIMOTO, Tom, and Aras ZIRGULIS. 2021. "Risk literacy" and social cleavages: Vulnerability in three acts. Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice [Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series] XXIII (2): 173-192. https://doi.org/10.54885/ISCV8624