Digital exclusion during national lockdown

The British government last week announced measures to ensure that the vast majority of the UK population would stay in their homes for a minimum of three weeks. UK residents are not alone under this constraint: as of today, estimates are that nearly 20% of the world’s population is currently restricted to their homes, including in the UK, Ireland, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, China and the USA.

For many people, this confined situation will mean social adaptation using virtual substitutes for their usual face to face activities. Internet banking and shopping will increase, and work and wider family interactions will continue but at a distance through technology. For those experiencing food and necessity shortages, online supermarkets are only a few clicks away (at least when panic buying is over and you can book a delivery slot).

Whilst this digital substitution is possible for the majority of people, a significant minority are digitally excluded, through a combination of life choices, low confidence or skills, and an inability to afford the requisite technology. Across the EU, 14% of people have never used the internet.  Eurostat evidence shows the digital divide is driven by four main factors:

  • age
  • educational status
  • income, and
  • geography

During the Coronavirus, older people are most at risk, not only from disease but their lower level of digital skills across the population. This aggravates their circumstances. During a recent set of focus groups in Limerick on digital exclusion, suspicion, fear and shame were commonly cited by older people as their emotional response to increasing digitalisation. Social isolation is also a factor in digital exclusion:

As someone living on my own there’s no one showing me how to use the technology. I have a tablet but I don’t know how to use it, I just use my phone for calling people.”

The move to digital can make socially vulnerable people feel increasingly helpless:

There’s also a self-esteem issue as people can’t keep up with the changes and don’t feel independent on their phones, someone has to help.”

Supporting the transition to digital with patience and sympathy is more important than ever.

During a lockdown, we must all make do with the technologies that we have. But it is important also to be aware that many people are not only socially distant but digitally disconnected from primary services and require support more than ever. There are many community-based organisations that offer opportunities to help those who are socially and digitally excluded during this time, such as through delivering food and prescriptions or completing administrative tasks online. To find out more, you can contact your local network (where neighbours are setting up support systems), visit your Local Authority’s website or search for opportunities on social media.

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