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The pandemic exposed the digital divide and forced a movement to close it

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Matt Bowler
Bernadette Kubacki, Kari Walden and Tish Flemming are shown at the office of San Diego Oasis. March 22, 2022. They are all seniors who were prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic to go online.

Tish Fleming lives in San Diego’s Gaslamp District and she remembers the beginning of the pandemic, when everything seemed to be closing down. The only companions people had were the ones they lived with, if there was anyone at all.

”I couldn’t see my family, my granddaughter … Everybody was separated,” Fleming said. “It was very, very difficult for me not to be able to be with them, not to be able to go to church.”

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Fleming, 78, said that social isolation ultimately forced her to learn to go online.

“Getting online I was at least able to connect with (my family),” she said.

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The American digital divide is nothing new. But the COVID-19 pandemic shined a bright new light on the gap between those who could use the Internet and those who couldn’t. And the dangers of COVID-19 were greater for a lot of the digitally disconnected. Elderly people were among the most likely to suffer hospitalization or death, as a result of a COVID-19 infection.

In fact, many of them didn’t know how to get the things they needed as retail stores and other services closed down.

The pandemic exposed the digital divide and forced a movement to close it

“And the pandemic was just dragging on and on and on. And it became very difficult to do the basic daily tasks. Getting your medication refilled,” said Simona Valanciute, president of San Diego Oasis, which helps seniors stay engaged in healthy activities.

“Seniors are not so technology-oriented. They like to come in and say, ‘I would like to make an appointment.’ They love to come in and make a joke, and talk about the weather with their banker or their pharmacist,” Valanciute said.

Seniors have a lot of different stories about their relationship to the online world, or their lack of it.

“Prior to the pandemic, I had about four or five years when I had no Internet in my home. So if I wanted to use it, I would go to the library. And then the library closed,” said Bernadette Kubacki, 75, of San Diego’s Tierrasanta neighborhood.

Kubacki and KPBS met in the offices of San Diego Oasis, where they just opened what they call a Tech Tank, a glassed-in room full of comfortable furniture where instructors coach seniors in the use of computer and smartphone technology.

Company president Valanciute said the restrictions of the pandemic had an immediate effect on their programs. San Diego Oasis created online versions of their classes and programs. The next steps were to get their clients computer tablets and teach them how to use them. And they were careful to get tablets that were very user friendly.

“You give this tablet to someone who has never had Internet or a smartphone. There are not 200 icons on it. We made it very simple,” Valanciute said, “And we designated one full-time staff member to do nothing but deliver these tablets and do one-on-one training.”

“Human to human connection is diminishing over time. But the good news is … seniors are smart people. With the right support and the right rhythm to the learning, they will be life-long technology users.”
Simona Valanciute, president of San Diego Oasis

The situation was similar for San Diego County administration, which was responsible for reaching people who needed COVID-19 tests and, later, vaccinations.

“In terms of our COVID response, there were two groups when we started. Those that had the ability with technology and knew how to use that, and the other groups that did not,” said Nick Macchione, director of the San Diego County health and human services agency.

The county provided information about COVID-19 testing and vaccination online. But the pandemic required an additional effort to reach people who were not digitally connected.

“The key thing was connecting with people where they’re at. Where they were living. So literally the old fashioned knocking on doors. Or going to markets and going to different civic organizations. Places of worship,” Macchione said.

County officials acknowledge that not everything worked very well, whether it was reaching people online or otherwise. There were very long waits when people tried to call San Diego’s 211 service for COVID-19 information. The state’s MyTurn vaccination appointment site was known to be "glitchy" and could be very difficult to use.

Macchione said the county ramped up staffing for the 211 service, in response to the long waits. And the state website, MyTurn?

"Having a centralized way to do vaccinations ... It was a valiant attempt. It was a clumsy rollout and was frustrating. But like in all things, this was innovation on the fly and this was never done before," Macchione said.

San Diego County also took steps to try to help people use the Internet. It created “how-to” videos to teach seniors to order groceries online or set up a Facebook account.

Today, Macchione said he thinks San Diego has a much more sophisticated elderly population when it comes to technology. Valanciute agreed, and added that social realities today demand that old people work to join the digital realm.

“Human to human connection is diminishing over time. But the good news is … seniors are smart people. With the right support and the right rhythm to the learning, they will be life-long technology users,” Valanciute said.

Kubacki was one of those seniors who had to learn to use a computer tablet, provided by San Diego Oasis. She said taking classes on Zoom has opened up her world.

“I started taking a language class, which I never had the time for before. But there we are online,” Kubacki said. “Art classes … the teacher is talking about some part of a painting and I’m able to spread it out and take a look at it.”

But she adds that life with a computer only gets you so far.

“I wouldn’t be someone who would be sitting in front of it all day. There are a lot of other things to do in life!”