Digital outcasts & COVID19

18th May 2020

Author: Professor Simon Rogerson, DeMontfort University, Leicester

This morning is day 17 of my self-isolation thanks to #coronavirus. The world has changed. The social glue has come unstuck and we have turned to technology to allow us to live and keep us connected.

Communication channels keep us informed of the latest developments, advice and restrictions. Social media is keeping our social groups and families together. It is helping to keep spirits up through the likes of dancing policemen in India demonstrating how to wash your hands and dancing nurses in England relieving the tensions with a one-minute disco session. To smile and laugh when we can in these dark times is so important.

 But there is a concern. Catchphrases such as global village and digital native have become the reality. From last week we can ask our pseudo friend, Alexa for the coronavirus update from the BBC and “she” will tell us. Local medical surgeries have closed their doors and we now use the NHS App to order prescriptions and seek consultations at a distance with our doctor. Those in isolation turn to online shopping for their groceries, nervously hoping they can find a delivery slot. Virtual social interactions through Facetime, Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom and others are now commonplace. So, what is the concern? It is an often-overlooked digital divide; a divide of two dimensions; young - old and high tech – low tech. Let me deal with these in turn.

Recent statistics puts the worldwide active digital population at 4.54 billion people which is about 59% of the global population. So, 41% of the global population is reliant upon other means to remain informed about the pandemic. This is concerning. However, the most vulnerable to COVID-19 are the elderly and therefore this section of the population deserves attention. Here in the UK 12 million people, about 18% of the population are over 65 years of age. The UK Office of National Statistics has found that 29% of over 65-year olds have never used the Internet. That is 3.48 million people which suggests enormous numbers worldwide are not connected. These vulnerable people do not have the ability to be supported emotionally or medically through the online. They are not digital natives; they are digital outcasts.

The second dimension focuses on access to high technology. Smartphones, virtual assistants, smart TV’s and tablets are typical high technology artefacts which provide a multitude of interactions to those who can afford, are digitally literate and are not digitally averse. Low technology offerings such as telephones, radio and tv provide restricted interactions, the latter two only supporting one-to-many broadcasting. The low-tech dependants are at a disadvantage compared with their high-tech counterparts. In times of need they are reliant upon e-buddies within the high-tech population to support them by acting as gatekeepers.

This overlooked digital divide, defined by its two critical dimensions, could have catastrophic consequences in times of emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Understandably governments are focusing on the operationally feasible urgent actions in their attempts to overcome the pandemic. However, the digital divide, discussed in this article, is putting a large proportion of the most vulnerable at even greater risk because actions will not reach them. Once this crisis is over and we reflect on the lessons to be learnt, top of the agenda must be to remove forever this extremely dangerous digital divide. Indeed, digital outcasts must be a thing of the past.

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