Tech Firms Could Keep Seniors Safe in Coronavirus Lockdown by Funding Connectivity


Wai San participates in a free 12-week program for seniors providing training in tablet computing at the Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center. Photo courtesy of Metta Fund.

Guest Opinion

Low-income San Francisco seniors are facing a connectivity crisis as well as a health crisis.

For most Bay Area residents coping with the mandate to shelter in place as the coronavirus spreads, home internet access, devices and software platforms enable us to work from home, communicate with family and friends, use telehealth services and stay informed.

But for seniors lacking home internet, a device or the skills to access the internet, the resulting isolation is not merely an inconvenience but a potentially life-threatening situation. Seniors suffering from loneliness, fear and depression may fail to follow their medication regimen and eat regular, healthy meals.

This is where the technology industry can help. Even as stocks have plunged, the top 10 Bay Area technology companies are still collectively valued at more than $2.5 trillion. They have both the money and the expertise to help solve this crisis.

Almost one in four San Francisco residents is over the age of 60, with 14% living in poverty. If close to half of low-income seniors lack connectivity, as Pew Research data indicates is likely, we can safely say that over 13,000 older San Francisco adults are not connected to the internet at home.

That means none of them has access to online supportive social services. Nor can they easily order groceries for delivery, video chat with their family or doctor or research health issues. A connected person at home for an extended time can keep in touch with colleagues at work and interact with family and friends via email and many other platforms. They can follow the news about the health crisis through a variety of media, visit health-related web sites and contact their doctor electronically if they feel ill. Many low-income seniors, in contrast, are left in the digital darkness.

This is a critical gap right now. The fatality rate from the COVID-19 virus rises dramatically with age. Data from China show that fatality rates for those who contract the coronavirus, while below 1% for those under age 50, rise to 3.6% for people in their 60s, 8% for those aged 70-79 and 14.8% for those over 80. More importantly, the fatality rate for critically ill adults is 45%. This illustrates the importance of protecting older adults from the initial transmission and getting them into the health care system as soon as possible should they become infected. This is something telehealth services can help with — for those who have access to them.

For decades, local nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies have helped seniors cross the digital divide by providing free training and information about low-cost internet options and digital devices. This connectivity, taken for granted by most of us, helps older adults live comfortably and safely in a digital world. Historically, this work has happened in a variety of public settings, such as libraries, senior centers, public housing complexes and other places where seniors congregate. But, with a mandate for all San Francisco residents to shelter in place, these services and public internet access centers are no longer available.

We at Community Tech Network and our colleagues in the digital training community have developed safe, efficient, effective and convenient systems to serve older adults. We have developed a diverse network of trainers (many of them volunteers) supported by a curriculum designed for our targeted older adult community. We have a proven track record of changing lives through digital literacy. Our websites contain a myriad of stories about older adult learners and how access to the digital world has changed their lives.

Now COVID-19 has required groups providing digital skills training to make significant adjustments to how they reach and interact with seniors. Previously, seniors attended training in person, but now that training needs to happen online and is only accessible by those who are fully connected.

The building blocks for success are all in place. We know the older adults who have demonstrated their desire to be connected and the capacity to learn. We have a dedicated network of digital trainers who want to help, and a structure for safe and effective delivery. The missing component is funding sufficient to tie all of the pieces together and deploy at scale.

We need the help of the local tech companies and philanthropists to support getting all isolated seniors connected immediately. We are calling for their financial assistance to provide internet access, devices and online training.

It is time for the tech companies who built an amazing digital community and economy, as well as local philanthropists, to come together and support our isolated seniors. There is the capacity to provide funding for this. Internet access and training needs to be treated as a top priority. It’s critical to protecting our older San Francisco neighbors, some of the most vulnerable people in our community — and the time to act is now.

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Kami Griffiths is executive director and co-founder of the Community Tech Network, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that works to extend internet connectivity and provide digital literacy training to low-income and disadvantaged communities.