COVID-19 and Digital Inclusion

Responding to instructions from the UK government to ‘stay at home’ during the Covid-19 pandemic, those with access to digital technology have moved their work, shopping, communications, relationships and healthcare online. Meanwhile, lockdown measures have deepened the plight of those who do not have access to nor the skills to use digital technology. These digitally excluded individuals have been expected to stay at home without income from digitally-mediated remote working, access to products/services and digital social networks. Consequently, those who are digitally excluded are now more socially and physically isolated than ever before. The 2020-1 pandemic has starkly demonstrated that what happens online can determine societal participation and also, directly impact the UK economy. In fact, digital technology has catalysed economic, social and political participation. Consequently, we must begin to accept digital exclusion as social exclusion. Accepting this argument is to build towards a digitally inclusive society. Digital inclusion can refer to the availability of hardware, software and internet services. Additionally, the term can also acknowledge that everybody must be digitally literate. Digital literacy is about that ability to understand, use and manipulate information and media from a wide range of sources when it is presented via digital devices.

The challenge ahead is acute: the digital needs of individuals and communities are impossibly varied. For example, little is known about the quantity and quality of digital access for those individuals battling mental health challenges (Farooq et al. 2015). Second, refugee migrants arrive in a host country which has moved its essential services online. Without digital access and skills, migrants risk exclusion from mainstream information sources and subsequently fail to integrate and participate fully in that society (Alam and Imran 2015). Thirdly, those who do not speak or read English face tremendous barriers accessing digital services because digital resources primarily rely upon reading and writing English (Begoña 2017). Fourthly, it became clear that during the Covid-19 pandemic older adults missed out entirely on products and services (Hill et al. 2015). Their social isolation also increased because many did not use digital technologies to communicate. Fifth, young people with developmental disabilities continue to overcome pervasive exclusion from socioeconomic and community integration (Khanlou et al. 2020). Yet, digital technology can help these young people learn, work, travel, socialize, shop, and interact with their community, without being subjected to any physical barriers.

For individuals to remain in control of their own resources during a pandemic and otherwise, they must surely have access to and the skills to use digital technology. Perhaps public and private stakeholders could work with communities to ensure local citizens are getting the access and skills they need? After all, we must work hard to ensure that an individual’s social capital is not eroded at the expense of state and privately-owned organizations, who are systematically moving their services online.

Sources

Alam, Khorshed and Imran, Sophia (2015), ‘The digital divide and social inclusion among refugee migrants’, Information technology & people (West Linn, Or.), 28 (2), 344-65.

Begoña, Gros (2017), ‘APPS4ME: inclusion of immigrants and digital social platforms’, Italian journal of educational technology, 25 (1).

Farooq, Saeed, et al. (2015), ‘Digital inclusion: The concept and strategies for people with mental health difficulties’, Aust N Z J Psychiatry, 49 (9), 772-73.

Hill, Rowena, Betts, Lucy R., and Gardner, Sarah E. (2015), ‘Older adults’ experiences and perceptions of digital technology: (Dis)empowerment, wellbeing, and inclusion’, Computers in human behavior, 48, 415-23.

Khanlou, Nazilla, et al. (2020), ‘Digital Literacy, Access to Technology and Inclusion for Young Adults with Developmental Disabilities’, Journal of developmental and physical disabilities, 33 (1), 1.

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