COVID-19,  Lifestyle

Helping the vulnerable access the internet

Paola Oriunno looks at efforts to close the ‘digital divide’ in Italy.

For many the prospect of ‘digital exclusion’ in this technological age is both real and dangerous, shutting people out of basic rights and services. 

During the pandemic the internet became essential for work and study, for supporting relationships, and for accessing information and entertainment. Never before had access to a smartphone, a tablet or a computer been so important in order to communicate, learn, make purchases or even to attend a psychotherapy session.

Yet at least in Italy it is frequent to find people who, though they might have a computer, don’t actually use it. The most vulnerable of all have been elderly women with basic educational levels; two years ago 94 per cent had never used a computer and fewer than two per cent used one every day. 

An OECD report from 2019 showed Italy to be third from bottom out of 29 countries in terms of digital literacy – something Covid-19 could only make worse.

Thankfully a number of organisations are trying to bridge the gap. #Gemma, a project encouraging ‘digital inclusion’, has been active since October 2019, running courses across nine centres in the Umbria region of Italy for people of all ages and backgrounds. 

Anna Schippa, the project’s head, highlighted how the organisation’s research showed that, “women with low education levels and those aged 50-70 were most at risk of being shut out. Our courses therefore target them, but we have also reached out to children, adolescents and those out of work.”

She stressed that stopping people from being left behind was a two-way street: 

“If institutions decide to digitize their services, they must deal with the issue of training vulnerable people to access them. As digital services grow, access rights must also grow.” 

Part of #Gemma’s work has been to set up digital help desks in villages with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. They offer users free assistance with downloading their health records and making payments online, with support from local councils, schools and tourist offices. 

There have been major challenges, however. 

A new problem arose with the pandemic: #Gemma’s job was to help people with little digital know-how, and yet the only way to do this in 2020 was through platforms like Zoom and WhatsApp.

As Anna pointed out, “We know we can reach more people, but some small villages are difficult to engage with. Before the pandemic we worked with flyers and posters, but then lockdown prevented that. In the smaller and more remote places older people feel more comfortable with a physical presence. That’s what they have always known, so it’s the best way to build up trust and get things done there. They feel at home in local meeting places, where they play cards and have socialised all their lives”. 

The organisation’s most popular course was its ‘Citizens’ Workshop’, which taught people how to activate PEC, the specialist email service used in Italy for accessing government sites. The webinar had around 11,000 views with over 1,700 participants. Another one designed to prevent phishing and online scams attracted over 800 people.

The 2020 course ‘Having lunch together in time of Covid19’ explained how to make a group video call and share an Easter lunch with distant friends and relatives. Another entitled ‘Forget me not… apps and reminders for medicines, medications and deadlines’ showed attendees how to set up their smartphones to remind them  to take their  pills!

The challenges ahead are clear – yet Anna is confident about facing them, spurred on by #Gemma’s mission:

“We want to prevent the emergence of ‘first class’ and ‘second class’ citizens during this time of isolation.”

“At the start of the pandemic here in Italy people used to meet up for an aperitivo on zoom and that helped families stay in touch. By using simple and clear language we wanted to give this opportunity to the 70-year-olds in small towns with few inhabitants too. They seem obvious things, but for many citizens they are not at all obvious,” notes the director of #Gemma.

#Gemma also offers training courses for ‘Digital Volunteers’ who help people in small communities use new technology. Sign-up rates have been huge, with people from all ages getting involved. 

“I was told there was an opportunity to become a volunteer for #Gemma and I applied immediately,” says Francesca, 53.

“I discovered a new way to volunteer. Being able to help people with little computer knowledge or who aren’t tech-savvy, teaching them how to use email services, social media, and access public administration services, is very rewarding.

I’m not an expert, but I can gladly offer my services to help the most fragile people in my area.”

“I discovered #Gemma from the local newspaper,” said Gabriella, 60, from the town of Bastia Umbra. “I started attending in-person courses in my village. Nowadays you have to know these things, they give us independence, whether it be to book a flight or access medical test results. The internet is used for everything.”

She added that having a guiding hand throughout was vital. 

“I tried it alone but I didn’t understand it. I needed someone who could calmly explain things to me.”

“For years I have had to spend hours in doctors’ waiting rooms for simple prescriptions, but – now I can download everything on my phone. Technology is great!”

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Paola Oriunno is a freelance journalist specialising in health and wellbeing issues who writes for some of Italy’s best-known magazines, Elle, Cosmopolitan and Vanity Fair. A longer version of this article was first published here and translated by Ronnie Convery.

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