For my elderly immigrant parents, the pandemic has exposed the digital literacy gap

posted on April 27, 2020

By Globe and Mail |

Vivian Song is a Toronto expat and journalist who has been living in Paris for the past 10 years. She has written for The New York Times, BBC, CNN, Vice and Huffington Post UK, among others.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, my brother and I have engaged in a new, tacit and transatlantic family ritual: From his home in Toronto, he sends my parents, who live in suburban Ontario, daily updates on the number of Canadian COVID-19 deaths as a fear tactic. Then, from my home in Paris, 6,000 kilometres away, I conduct regular checks like a drill sergeant to make sure they’re not leaving the house.

It’s a routine we’ve invented and honed out of necessity. The fast-evolving news and rules of this global pandemic can leave even the average media-savvy and digitally literate person scrambling; I know this well, because I’ve had to toggle constantly between news sites in France and Canada to try to keep up with developments both locally and back home. But our parents are Luddites in their 60s and 70s who, as Korean immigrants, aren’t fluent English speakers, to boot.

My 72-year-old father still does all his banking with a teller, refusing to get a bank card. It’s only in the past few years that he’s learned the basics of how to use a mobile phone and Google. My parents don’t have a cable subscription; they get all their news from Korea, thanks to a set-up my brother installed on their TV and computer. And while my mother can navigate YouTube and some messaging apps, her online comfort level ends there.

There has long been a digital divide that has kept seniors such as my parents in an information vacuum. A 2018 report from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) notes that seniors are the group in greatest need of digital access and literacy, followed by low-income citizens, youth and Indigenous peoples. And just as it has with income inequalities and class divides, the pandemic has exacerbated these problems. And now, the very people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 are also being left behind because of their informational disadvantages – with language barriers among immigrant seniors putting them at a double disadvantage.

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