Nfld. & Labrador

Digital disconnect: How poor people are isolated because they don't have online access

While many people are coping with the pandemic by staying glued to their phones and computer screens, an anti-poverty activist in St. John's is warning that low-income Canadians are caught on the wrong side of a digital divide.

If you can’t afford a data plan, how do you stay connected during the pandemic?

Anti-poverty activist Dan Meades says low-income Canadians are caught on the wrong side of a digital disconnect during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CBC)

While many people are coping with the pandemic by staying glued to their phones and computer screens, an anti-poverty activist in St. John's is warning that low-income Canadians are caught on the wrong side of a digital divide.

"I'd argue that there's never been a time that's more important for us all to be digitally connected than right now," said Dan Meades, provincial co-ordinator of the Transition House Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Meades said we're getting all of our information online.

"Things are changing hour by hour, and day to day. The government's expectations of our behaviour continues to change, but also the ways we need to think about safety and security in our communities is changing all the time," he said. 

"Without the ability to access that information in real time, folks just aren't getting the information they need to make good decisions."

While many of us are coping with the crisis by staying glued to our phones and computer screens, many low-income people don't have that option. (Shutterstock)

As an example, Meades said that in the days after the public health state of emergency was declared in Newfoundland and Labrador, and businesses were locking their doors, some low-income people were caught completely unaware that anything had changed.

"We had folks show up to community agencies here in St. John's … who walked in, couldn't believe that nobody else was on the street, and that there wasn't a lineup," he said.

"[They] had no idea about a pandemic or that things were shut down, and were just totally confused that the state of the world could change that quickly."

The digital disconnect

The digital divide has been an issue in Canadian society long before the coronavirus.

Meades said the numbers show that hundreds of thousands of people across the country don't have regular access to home internet or a mobile data plan. 

"We all know the cost of connecting digitally can be really high," he said.

"For people who aren't able to afford that every month, that's one of the first things to go, and they move to sort of a pay-to-play model, where they have basically 'some minutes on their phone,' is how we describe it."

Meades said once that data is up or those minutes are used, they're digitally disconnected.

Hundreds of thousands of low-income Canadians were digitally disconnected before the pandemic. Now, Meades says, they're even more isolated. (Shutterstock)

Many low-income people rely on public internet access points to stay connected, Meades said, including libraries, coffee shops and cafes.

Now, with closures due to COVID-19, even those options are off the table.

"You can just pop out in front of a Tim Hortons almost everywhere in Canada and get online for a few minutes if you need to and use their Wi-Fi connection. [But] you can't do that in a lot of communities anymore," Meades said.

Inside the transition houses that Meades represents, the situation isn't much better.

He said many transition houses do have a communal Wi-Fi connection, but with all of the residents stuck indoors with few ways to pass the time, using that connection can be near impossible — especially for applications that stream video.

"We just don't have the bandwidth for everybody to be on all the time," Meades said.

"It's a huge issue in the shelter and homelessness community."

We all need Netflix

While missing out on info and updates about the pandemic poses real safety risks for people who are digitally disconnected, Meades said the problem is even bigger than that. 

"When we're being forced to … physically distance from one another, the only ways we have to stay connected are digitally," he said.

That means people can't access services like mental health and addictions support, which are now offered mainly online.

It also means that people have a harder time of keeping up with friends and family.

Then there's the issue of just how people are supposed to fill all of these hours indoors, without streaming services like Netflix. 

Without access to Netflix and other online entertainment, spending months indoors will be extremely difficult for people who are digitally disconnected, says Meades. (Shutterstock)

"When we think about quality of life, it can be really easy to trivialize that, and think, 'Hey, if someone doesn't have Netflix, it's not the end of the world,'" said Meades.

"But right now, when we're talking about days, and weeks, and potentially months of social isolation, if folks don't have something to do, some of those mental health and addictions pieces get harder and harder to deal with."

Meades said it also comes down to helping enforce the state of emergency, and getting people to stay inside.

"The more things people have got to do to occupy themselves and their minds and stay connected at home, the easier it's going to be for them to do that and the quicker we're going to get past this thing."

'Onus is on governments'

Meades said it's up to government and the media to ensure vital information is available from sources other than the internet — for example, the radio.

But, he said, we also need to work on closing the digital divide for good.

"We need to think about universality and affordability. The more digital connection becomes necessary in our lives, the more the onus is on governments to make sure that connection is provided to individuals in a way they can afford and access reasonably," he said. 

Meades said it hasn't been a priority for governments.

"How [do] we make sure people can shelter in place safely, with the right access to services, is going to be a thing we all need to deal with," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Zach Goudie is a journalist and video producer with CBC in St. John's, NL.

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