SINGAPORE: There would be little contention in labelling 2020 as annus horribilis or a year of disaster or misfortune. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 1.7 million people died from COVID-19 last year and the numbers are still going up.
The ensuing lockdown of cities, and even entire countries, plunged the global economy into what the World Bank stated as the worst recession since the Second World War.
According to data from the International Monetary Fund, all major economies in the world, with the exception of China, are projecting negative Gross Domestic Product figures.
Due to fear of the virus, grief of bereavement, worry for their livelihood, and stress from the consequential lockdown, cases of reported mental health issues also rose.
A WHO study found that more than 60 per cent of the 130 countries surveyed reported disruption to their mental health services for vulnerable people.
The rate of disruption to mental health services might have been higher if not for countries, such as Singapore, making the switch to telemedicine and teletherapy to maintain some level of service amidst the social distancing imposed by circuit breakers and lockdowns.
Hence, the rate of digital transformation to many facets of life, such as shopping, learning and working, which has been accelerated by the onslaught of COVID-19, should be seen more as enablement rather than disruption.
Yet, technology remains a double-edged sword. Even as it allowed life to carry on to some degree of normalcy amidst the pandemic, it could also create a divide between people along the two ends of the technology savvy spectrum.
SENIOR CITIZENS ARE MOST AT RISK OF BEING DIGITALLY DISRUPTED
In Singapore, the plight of senior citizens is of particular concern as they are the least technologically savvy group in the population. Based on figures from a 2019 survey by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), 58 percent of residents above 60 years old are internet users compared to 89 percent for all residents.
As the elderly are among the least technologically savvy group in a population, there is a risk that digital transformation could become more of a disruption than an enablement for this demographic group.
Moreover, with rising incidents of cyber-attack and online scams, it is increasingly unacceptable for senior citizens to only have a cursory level of digital knowledge and skill.
The IMDA launched the Senior Go Digital initiative in May 2020 to ensure that older adults are not excluded even as the rest of the country progress towards becoming a smart nation.
For example, to ensure that telco mobile plans and smart phones remain affordable to senior citizens facing financial difficulties, there is the Mobile Access for Seniors scheme.
However, the challenge that seniors face in adopting technology is not only financial, but also cultural and social.
WORK AROUND SENIOR NEEDS
Cultural concerns include the language medium and genre of digital content which appeals to senior citizens.
During the early phase of the circuit breaker when physical activities came to a halt, some of the regular activities that senior activity centres and community clubs organised for the elderly moved online.
The Ministry of Communication and Information also co-organised dialect-speaking e-Getai shows that were streamed online to not only entertain but also educate seniors on COVID-19 protection.
READ: Commentary: The case for universal digital access, as home-based computing becomes a post-pandemic norm
Besides online content in Mandarin and Chinese dialects, the IMDA also curated content in Malay and Tamil for older adults who are more conversant in their own mother tongue.
There were already online content that would appeal to the culture of senior citizens even prior to these initiatives. For example, Hokkien and Cantonese old songs and videos of Chinese opera in various dialects could be found on major online media platforms, such as Youtube and Spotify.
All these efforts indicates a more widespread appreciation of the need for content that appeals to the cultural disposition of the elderly in encouraging them to go digital, instead of coercing senior citizens to adopt technology just so that they will not be left out from the emerging smart nation.
If a smart nation does not offer anything that appeals to the needs and lifestyle of senior citizens, they will feel left out of the digital transformation.
But just having relevant content is not enough. Senior citizens will still have to acquire digital skills to search and access these contents.
The government has set up SG Digital community hubs at various Community Clubs/Centres and also public libraries across the island. At these hubs, senior citizens can obtain one-on-one guidance in learning basic skills like how to download, password protect, make calls or text.
Such an approach is more effective in encouraging seniors to pick up new digital skills from a warm-bodied person rather than written instruction or online video.
FAMILY AND COMMUNITY SUPPORT IS CRITICAL
While it is certainly beneficial to have these digital community hubs where older adults can receive help in learning digital skills, numerous studies have also shown familial and social support to have a positive effects in the learning of digital skills among this group of people.
The results of these studies mirrored my own personal encounters. I know of an illiterate lady in her seventies. During the Circuit Breaker, her family bought her a smart phone so that they could video call her, since in-person visits were prohibited.
As one of her grandchildren had given birth to her first great-grandchild during that period, her family made it a point to have daily video calls so that she get to see the infant.
The yearning to see her great-grandchild and the support of her family enabled her to quickly learn to receive video calls. These days, she always brings her smart phone along when she is out meeting friends and would proudly show photos as well as videos of the infant to her friends.
Adding to the importance of familial and social support, research has also shown the efficacy of intergenerational approaches in senior citizens learning of digital skills.
What this means is that older adults are better at learning digital skills from their grandchildren. We may all know an elderly who is an active user and should they run into trouble, they go to their teenage grandchildren for help.
But attention also needs to go towards supporting senior citizens who live alone. In the past, senior activity centres and schools have partnered to organise intergenerational bootcamps to support seniors in picking up digital skills.
With the understanding that the effectiveness of such intergenerational learning relies on the relational connection, it may be more effective if senior learners and their younger guides can bond over more sustained and regular sessions, something schools can weave into their calendars.
Whether COVID-19 eases up this year or next, a digital transformation will continue to be a big part of our lives.
Considering the various initiatives the government has in place, the key piece of the puzzle for the digital inclusion of senior citizens are now in shape.
The next lap to close the silver digital gap lies with each of us in reaching out to and supporting older folks in our own family and community in acquiring digital skills and being comfortable with using digital technology.
This may be the crucial bit to ensure that nobody will be left behind in a digitally enabled smart nation.
Associate Professor Calvin M.L. Chan is Director, Office of Graduate Studies at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. His research interests include Digital Transformation as well as IT and Ageing.