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Digital divide ‘means vulnerable will miss Covid-19 updates’

Coronavirus could further exacerbate social inequalities, says government adviser

Almost 30 per cent of New Zealanders have no connection to the internet and will be excluded from digital updates on Covid-19 control measures, according to a senior government official.

Kirkpatrick Mariner, a principal adviser on digital inclusion with the Department of Internal Affairs, says this “digital divide” particularly affects the elderly and low-income families living in public housing.

“The reality is that we have a digital divide that mirrors the social and economic inequality in our society. And that’s a major concern as the Covid-19 pandemic exposes just how digitally unprepared we are,” he writes in an editorial for E-Tangata, an independent Māori and Pacific Islands online current affairs forum.

“In government, as in the private sector, we’re looking to technology to keep New Zealanders connected to everything we need in these unprecedented times. But without affordable connections and devices for those who are most in need, and without the required skills, a huge number of New Zealanders will miss out on a suddenly critical ability to connect.”

Mariner says census data suggest that between 45,000 to 70,000 people in NZ have no landline and internet.

“And we know from Ministry of Education estimates that between 100,000 to 150,000 students don’t have internet access at home,” he writes.

“Right now, Covid-19 is demanding that we get students on the digital agenda and equipped for the future. If we don’t do this soon, we’ll see this crisis further exacerbate social inequalities. That means the most vulnerable groups in our country will continue to be marginalised and become an entrenched poverty statistic.”

Mariner has a masters degree in health management from the University of Auckland and has been a social policy adviser to NZ government agencies and departments. He is presently involved in developing and implementing the government’s Digital Inclusion Blueprint.

“I know that, right now, there’s a hive of activity as the industry, providers and the government try to get this sorted. Some amazing people are on this digital equity journey trying to make a difference,” he writes. 

“But while we work hard to respond to the immediate challenges, we need to look beyond the short term. We need to look at solutions that work well now and are sustainable for the longer term, so that we can ensure no New Zealander is shut out of the digital world.”