China’s Digital Response to Covid-19 Hits a Glitch—Seniors Don’t Understand It - Telenor

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December 7, 2020

China’s Digital Response to Covid-19 Hits a Glitch—Seniors Don’t Understand It


(WSJ) China is rolling out new measures to help seniors, as the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbates the digital divide for its rapidly aging population.


The State Council, China’s cabinet, released a document last week calling on businesses and local authorities to take steps to assist seniors, including accepting cash and allowing paper alternatives to the digital health codes that have been required to access most public places—from hospitals to shopping centers to office buildings—during the pandemic.


China, which has leapfrogged other countries in the use of digital payments, was already tricky terrain for those uncomfortable with technology. But the pandemic has amplified the problem.


Recent incidents have sparked outrage on Chinese social media over poor treatment of the elderly. In August, state broadcaster CCTV and other Chinese media reported that an elderly man had been forced off a bus during rush hour in Harbin, in northern Heilongjiang province, because he didn’t scan his health code.


Last week, Chinese media reported that an elderly person in Yichang, in central Hubei province, had weathered the rain to pay for medical insurance but was rejected because cash wasn’t allowed.


A few days later, state-owned China National Radio reported that a 94-year-old woman had to be lifted up by her waist to look into a camera and activate her social security card at the local bank, because only facial recognition was accepted.


More common, though, are everyday instances of older people fumbling with their phones to show health and location records to enter buildings. Some without smartphones say they are limiting their daily activities because of the hurdles to getting around without health codes.


“There’s the mental difficulty and the actual difficulty,” said Li Jun, an 80-year-old retiree who worked in publishing. Seniors feel pressure when using smartphones in public places for fear of holding up the line, said Ms. Li, who uses a Huawei handset.


Government-backed systems known as health codes, many of which are integrated into popular smartphone apps, link users’ national ID and their Covid-19 status. While rules vary by city, many public places in China require people to show these color-coded digital badges and declare they are Covid-19 free before allowing entry. Due to strict checks at airports and railway stations, it is nearly impossible to travel within the country without health codes.


The document released by the State Council called for alternatives, such as paper certificates, while encouraging tech companies to develop more senior-friendly applications, such as simplifying ride-hailing to a single click.


It also prohibited all institutions and individuals from rejecting cash, because many seniors don’t use online payment systems. A central-bank official Thursday said businesses that refused cash payments would be placed on a blacklist.


The government will also launch education initiatives on technology for the elderly, and promote the development of such curricula in neighborhoods and schools, it said.


The proportion of elderly in China’s population is growing rapidly after decades of the one-child policy. In 2019, nearly a fifth of the country’s population, or more than 250 million people, were aged 60 and above. By 2050, that is expected to rise to a third of the population, or nearly 490 million people, according to an estimate by a health official.


At the same time, China has shifted to a largely cashless, smartphone-driven society. From purchasing street food to obtaining toilet paper in public bathrooms, smartphones are needed in China to make payments or scan QR codes for just about everything.


Some seniors have adapted to the new technology, or rely on younger family members to decode it.


Li Lüqi, 92, retired statistics professor in Changsha, in southern Hunan province, who spoke to The Wall Street Journal through his granddaughter, said he is comfortable using Chinese chat app WeChat to talk to friends. Thanks to his daughter, Mr. Li now knows how to shop and pay his bills online.


But he is still wary of paying with a smartphone. He said he prefers cash over mobile payments because he’s afraid he might accidentally transfer too much money.


Still, for many seniors and their children, it’s a struggle—and one that’s only gotten harder during the pandemic.


In Shanghai, Angelia Wang said she tried to teach her parents, who are in their 60s, how to use the app that was required to enter and exit their compound during the height of the pandemic, along with registering their national ID number.


In the end, she gave up and made screenshots of the health code for easy access, she said. Later, the neighborhood started offering a paper version of the health code for the elderly.


Source: Wall Street Journal by Eva Xiao

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