Digital divide: the virus, the pen and the mouse

We are finally in “code yellow”. In the media, the Covid-19 has, for the moment at least, been pushed into the background by the dramatic international news that we know.

It seems appropriate, however, to recall that if the virus has not prevented the Earth from turning, if it has certainly complicated everyone’s existence, it has been the case, more particularly, for those for whom life is already not easy in “normal” times.

“For Dutch edition 1…”

Nobody forgot. The overloaded hospital system. Everyone at home, sometimes in cruel solitude or promiscuity, family, friends, colleagues, school, from a distance. The violent and enigmatic frontier between the essential and the non-essential. The administrations are closed, as are the mutual insurance companies, the unemployment services, the CPAS, and so many others. Widespread mistrust discouraging seeking help. The telephone ringing to absent subscribers, the robotic answering machines pouring out their “voor Nederlands druk 1 – for French press 2 – you are 42nd in the queue – please stay on the line…”. Forced dematerialization and the administrative universe, already off-putting, that has become ruthless. Because requesting an appointment, taking information or managing your personal file must now be done online. You have to be computer literate. People will just have to adapt!

When we don’t have internet

When you don’t have the Internet, when you don’t master the mouse, or when the language is an obstacle, when you feel isolated and powerless, there is still one recourse: a letter. When everything had become inaccessible to the public, the public writers kept their hotlines open as much as possible – their computers, their ears and their hearts too. They and they maintained a link, continued to lend their pen, and proposed a solution where there no longer seemed to be one. Finally we could expose his problem (urgent) hoping that an answer would be given (quickly). We could hope… At least, we were faced with someone who took the time to welcome you, to listen to you, to identify your request, to materialize it by typing on a computer keyboard. At least we left with something, a sheet of paper on which the public scribe you had been advised to go to see had written down your worries, your needs and your hopes. It wasn’t much, but when everything was frozen, it was an imperceptible movement of life “as before”.

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Difficulties following the accelerated computerization of public services

During an informal meeting with a mayor who is nevertheless open to dialogue, speak to her about the difficulties posed to some by the accelerated computerization of public services and hear yourself answer: “Sometimes we reach out to them and they don’t take it.” Wouldn’t the authorities therefore realize the extent of the abyss? Public writers, themselves, measure this magnitude in the daily life of their offices. But obviously, bridging the gap of the digital divide is not their action. Even more, they refuse that their voluntary commitment – that they live as a chosen gesture of solidarity carrying within it the germ of a fairer society – be placed like a patch on insufficient and badly thought out public policies, and thus come into compensate for shortcomings and delay improvement, even if only to a small extent.

40% of Belgians are affected

Because if a certain lack of digital skills affects nearly 40% of Belgians, it reaches

75% of people

the least qualified and who are also those whose incomes are the lowest. The digital divide, in addition to being a problem in its own right, therefore also appears both as an indicator and an aggravating factor of the precariousness of certain populations. This is why public writers join their voices to those of associations, including in particular Lire et Écrire, which demand, for the benefit of these publics already victims of inequalities,

“the maintenance of physical counters, sufficient and nearby

as well as

“the prohibition of dematerialization as the only way of access to public service”

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Not to engage in this way would be to add injustice to injustice, and to consider normal to make undergo more discriminations to those who already live in the margins. Is this really what we want?

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