LSE: Bank branch closures during epidemics trigger warnings about the digital divide

People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds found it difficult to access online banking during the pandemic, while many still rely on in-person banking services, according to a paper by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

The research, published in the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, reveals that while people are significantly more likely to avoid traditional bricks-and-mortar branches during epidemics, take-up of digital financial services varies according to income, age, and employment levels. Most people return to in-person banking after an epidemic.

Researchers Dr Orkun Saka, Dr Barry Eichengreen, and Dr Cevat Giray Aksoy combined data on epidemics worldwide with surveys of individual financial behaviour fielded in more than 140 countries in 2011, 2014 and 2017.

They discovered that during previous epidemics, such as Ebola, MERS and Zika, people were more likely to switch to the internet, mobile banking apps and automated teller machines (ATMs) to carry out banking transactions, but that customers returned to in-person banking once the epidemic was over.

Dr Orkun Saka says of the findings: “This evidence tells us that although we have seen a swap from in-person to online banking over recent epidemics, including COVID-19, banks should think twice before permanently closing bricks and mortar branches. After every epidemic we studied, people almost always returned to in-person banking.”

Banks should also be aware that not everyone has access to digital services. Using a machine-learning algorithm, the team identified the markers of individuals who were most likely to switch to online banking. Their research indicates that young, high-income earners in full-time employment are most likely take up online or mobile transactions in response to epidemics.

Dr Saka says: “Our research indicates that individuals who are elderly or less economically-advantaged are not accessing to the same extent the digital financial services that many take for granted, and have benefitted from during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Researchers also investigated the role of local internet infrastructure in the shift to online banking. They found that individuals with internet coverage of 3G are at least twice more likely to move to online banking in response to an epidemic, leaving those without at a clear disadvantage.

Dr Saka says: “Our research is just one example of the ‘digital divide’, which we have seen exacerbated during recent epidemics, including COVID-19.

“High-tech workers and workers in the professions have been better able to shift to remote work, compared to store clerks, custodians and other less well-paid individuals. Women have had more difficulty than men capitalising on opportunities to work remotely, given the types of work in which they typically find themselves. Individuals older than 65, being less technologically adaptable, find it more difficult to adjust to new ways of working. Small firms with limited technological capabilities have been less able to adapt their business models and stay competitive than their larger rivals. Residents of areas with limited broadband have experienced less scope for moving to remote work, remote schooling and telehealth.”

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