The COVID-19 crisis in Santiago: the increased vulnerability and isolation of older adults
By Alfonso Otaegui, on 23 April 2020
As everywhere in the world right now, the main subject ruling everyday life in Santiago, Chile, is the COVID-19 crisis. On the 18th of March, the government declared a national state of catastrophe. Since then, borders have closed, massive gatherings are forbidden, and people are asked to stay at home. The date marks five months since the start of social unrest in Chile, with protests that initially began as a response to a rise in metro fares in Santiago and then escalated into a national crisis. Five months of manifestations and repression followed until the COVID-19 crisis emptied the streets. The government postponed the constitutional referendum from April to October. Despite many accusations of human rights violations directed at the carabineros (Chilean police), their presence in the streets seems to be accepted again.
I still live in the working- and middle-class neighbourhood where I came to do fieldwork on ageing with smartphones over two years ago. While in strict lockdown, I keep in touch with the older adults I taught a smartphone use course to for over a year, mainly through our WhatsApp group. For these older adults, having someone help them with the smartphone is more necessary now than ever before. On the one hand, misinformation about the coronavirus can be significantly harmful. I have been in charge of debunking fake news, which I do several times a week. On the other hand, it has become imperative to be able to do some chores online, such as paying bills. I created a couple of tutorials on how to use banking apps, which have been proven useful for them.
Isolation due to the lockdown and the risk on contagion can exacerbate the feeling of solitude for older adults, especially those living alone. Such is the case of Esther, a retired secretary who is 71. She lives alone and has been estranged from her only son for a long time. She is prone to depression and has a very delicate health condition, which until not so long ago, required the attention of seven different specialists. Esther had closed her bank account since being mugged on the street a few months ago, and has relied solely on cash since then. When the lockdown was announced, she called me sounding very worried, as she did not know what to do and had no one else to turn to. She could not risk going out herself but she needed to pay her bills somehow. Fortunately, on the last day before the lockdown, she was able to open a new bank account that included a home banking service. She only needed to learn how to use her banking app.
Not being able to teach her in person represented a new challenge. The smartphone was our only way of communicating, and her single remaining connection to the Internet (she had to cancel her home Internet service, as she could no longer afford it). I could not talk to her and simultaneously show her banking app screens. I produced two tutorials specially tailored for this occasion. “I will try to do this very slowly, as a way of entertaining myself”, she said. Fortunately, she was able to follow the instructions and succeeded. She was indeed pleased and grateful, and even seemed to be empowered. Esther still struggles with depression. “I try to prevent negative thoughts from growing inside me, and I try to be away from the phone”. Too much information can be overwhelming, she explains. She walks inside her one-bedroom apartment as she tries to stay inside as much as possible. However, other older adults who, like Esther, live alone, will have to go outside at some point.
The only time I go out is once a week, on Sunday morning, to attend the Sunday street market where fresh fruit and vegetables are sold for a much more reasonable price than in supermarkets. I was surprised to see many older adults doing their weekly shopping. Even though vendors and customers wear masks, and the city hall sends out inspection teams to enforce the preventive measures, social distancing is not really respected. Besides, it is common that people touch different products before selecting which ones to buy. It is indeed quite risky to go to the street market. According to the last epidemiological report from the Ministry of Health on April 20th, Santiago is the administrative region with the second-highest number of confirmed cases in the Metropolitan Region. Hopefully, some initiatives to help older adults have been displayed throughout the city, with some groups relying on volunteers to do the shopping for them. Digital exclusion and isolation were already a concern for older adults long before the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis seems to have exacerbated what was already there.