PhD Candidate in Anthropology
When lockdown was announced there were many things that I, and others like me, worried about – how to get groceries and medications, if my family would be safe, and what this would mean for my field work. One thing I did not worry about was how to get online. But more so than ever, we rely on the internet for all kinds of access. We use it for Covid-19 news and guidance, food delivery services, communication with families and friends, work and school. But not everyone has such easy access to the internet or the equipment needed to access it like smartphones, laptops and tablets. Without these things, lockdown causes further isolation and disadvantages.
This has become clear during my research with a women’s space that caters to asylum seekers and refugees here in Belfast. When lockdown began, I was impressed with the speed and agility with which the group adapted and moved online using Zoom. Not only have they continued to offer several regular classes, but they also expanded their offerings in response to the women’s requests and interests. Five days a week, women come together online to practice English, learn Chinese auto-massage, do yoga, or to cook together. And during these Zoom calls they also catch up and connect with one another. While these online activities could never fully replace in-person social activities, the women do feel they help them feel less alone and isolated. The problem is that while a core group of women do participate regularly, many more women do not have the technology or connectivity they need to participate.
Many women lack WiFi and the money to acquire it. That means they have limited opportunities to connect to the world outside their home. Before the lockdown, women would go to cafes, libraries and other public spaces with free WiFi for hours a day. That is no longer possible. And as a result, these women and their families are dramatically isolated from services, resources, friends and family. Children are home without access that would allow them to continue their education. Many also lack televisions, games, and other things we take for granted to keep ourselves entertained. Imagine being home with children for weeks on end, trying to keep them indoors but having nothing to keep them busy. On top of that, these women are separated from family members in other countries – unable to speak to husbands, children, mothers, etc. if they have no WiFi that makes regular calls affordable.
The problem of digital connectivity for marginalized populations is not new, but coronavirus has heightened the problem for the most vulnerable. Internet connectivity has become a necessity, especially during a prolonged lockdown.