As the digital wave sweeps across an ageing society like China, it is essential to consider and address the ageist nature of digital technologies and make them accessible to all.

Cai Yiping


The population of older people has been steadily increasing in China. However, the vast majority of them do not have access to digital technologies or are unable to utilize them due to lack of literacy or age-based disabilities like visual or auditory impairments.

Further, the rigorous use of contact tracing apps during the pandemic, along with the increasing importance of digital technologies to access basic necessities such as medicines, food, banking, etc., has bred a new form of ageist exclusion against older people.

This article emphasizes the need to make technologies accessible to the most vulnerable groups of older people. Yiping also suggests concrete ways forward for governments, CSOs, etc. to ensure that the elderly benefit from the digital.

Population ageing is leading to a shift in the median age of the population, both due to declining fertility rates and rising life expectancy. China has seen this trend towards an ageing society since 1999 and as a “developing country”, it has the largest elderly population and the fastest ageing process in the world accounting for one-fifth of the global elderly population. In 2019, China’s overall elderly population aged 60 and above reached approximately 254 million, accounting for 18.1% of the total population. The ageing population is predicted to increase further.

In parallel, there is an unprecedented, rapid development of the internet, new ICTs, and digitisation in China, which has been integrated into all aspects of people’s daily lives. As of March 2020, according to the 45th Statistical Report on Internet Development released by the China Internet Network Information Centre, the number of internet users in China is 904 million, and the internet coverage rate has reached 64.5%. This means there are about 500 million people within China who do not use the internet. In addition, in 2019, there were 253.88 million people aged 60 and above, of which only 60.56 million people had access to the internet, thus leaving nearly 200 million elderly people out of the digital society.

 

Many older persons have limited access to digital technology and lack the necessary skills to fully utilize them. Barriers that older persons face related to literacy and language, including visual and hearing impairments, may be  amplified during the Covid-19 crisis.

The UN Policy Brief “The Impact of COVID-19 on older persons” outlines the negative impact of the digital divide on older persons both in developed and developing countries. Many older persons have limited access to digital technologies and lack the necessary skills to fully utilize them. Barriers that older persons face related to literacy and language, including visual and hearing impairments, may be  amplified during the Covid-19 crisis . Thus, the most vulnerable groups (aged, poor, illiterate, ethnic minority, rural, disabled) are often excluded from basic services, such as public transportation, health, banking. This has become even more evident during the pandemic, when apps and digital devices are being used for contact tracking and many services are only being provided via the internet.

Recently, the news reports and footage of the plight of older persons during Covid-19 have gone viral on the internet and social media. A 70-year-old man was removed from the bus by drivers and passengers because he did not have a smartphone and could not show the health code required to board any public transportation. Another old man was crying in the supermarket because he could not purchase anything without a mobile payment, although he had brought cash with him. “Why? Why I cannot pay by cash? It is not fake money!”, he argued but nobody listened to him. An old woman went to a dental clinic but was turned away at the door because she did not know that she had to make an online appointment in advance. In another case, a street vendor who sells vegetables asked his customers whether they could pay by cash instead of paying by mobile phone. “If you scan the QR code and pay by phone, the money will be transferred to my son’s bank account. I will not receive any money. I need some cash to buy food”, she explained. According to a survey, only 51% of the people over 60 use electronic payments. At the same time, there are also heart-warming stories in the media. A railway station and some hospitals have set up a special channel at the entrance to serve passengers and patients who are elderly and may not have smart phones or health codes. Since October 2020, in the Sichuan Province, it is mandatory for all clinics and health facilities to retain a face to face service window for older people  . Young volunteers are teaching and accompanying older people to explain how to use smartphones and how to access the internet.

Governments need to ensure the policies and measures, including the temporary measure aimed at containing the pandemic, are aligned with the existing laws and policies on the protection of rights and interests of the elderly.

All these stories should make people reflect on how to ensure that older persons are not left behind in the digital age. It requires the synergy and coordinated efforts from the government, business sectors, and the community at large. 

  • Governments need to ensure the policies and measures, including the temporary measure aimed at containing the pandemic, are aligned with the existing laws and policies on the protection of rights and interests of the elderly.
  • Many older people also are active learners, but the digital products and services provided should be adapted to, and meet the needs of, the elderly; such as developing mobile phones with large screens, loud volume, large font and a simplified operating system.
  • The application of e-government services needs to be optimized to ensure that the basic public services (in stations, airports, parks, banks, hospitals, shopping malls and other public places) provide necessary information guidance and manual assistance. For example, establishing “green channels” and adopting alternative measures and retaining cash payments and offline processing channels to improve “face-to-face” services.
  • CSOs and communities should introduce technical service resources and conduct training courses for the elderly for the use of digital products.
  • Social inclusion and solidarity (including inter-generational solidarity) needs to be strengthened during physical distancing and provide social support measures and targeted care for older persons, including assisting their access to digital technologies.
  • Special attention should be paid to the most vulnerable groups among our older people (poor, rural, women, and those with physical and mental impairments), to address their needs and eradicate the digital barriers.