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Getting lonelier: the forbidden spaces of sociality during the lockdown in Santiago

Alfonso Otaegui27 July 2020

“I hope that I will overcome this [the pandemic], given that us, older adults, are more susceptible to being attacked by this bloody virus”, says Don Francisco. Don Francisco is a 78-year-old retired electrician. He lives in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in the western part of Santiago, not far from the central train station. He lives alone, as he is a widower and has no children, no siblings, nor any remaining family. Since lockdown started in March, I have had regular contact with Don Francisco every week through WhatsApp. He is one of the former students of my smartphone workshops.

As I said in a previous post, the COVID-19 crisis —and its corollary, the quarantine—have mostly enhanced what was already there: inequality, insecurity, instability of the job market. When it comes to older adults such as Don Francisco, it has revealed the relevance of little everyday interactions and the impact of digital exclusion.

Due to the lockdown, Don Francisco has seen his usual spaces of sociality reduced. His messages week after week constitute a collection of everyday interactions that are no longer possible. He regrets not being able to access the now closed big park near his house, where he used to stroll every now and then, sometimes sitting on a bench and watch people passing by. “There is no one in the streets, no one”, he highlights. Much of the social life of Don Francisco takes the shape of everyday chores: buying vegetables at the fair, going to the supermarket, getting the newspapers at the train station. Little opportunities for little dialogues.

Street market in Santiago during the lockdown. CCNC-BY Alfonso Otaegui

“With the neighbours, now I barely see them, we only meet when it is ‘street market’ day. We meet at the market and just give each other a short wave from afar, as we are holding bags… but at least when we see each other, we know we are fine, right?”. 

At the street market, Don Francisco enjoys short interactions with the vendors, who usually cry out their offers to passers-by, all potential customers. “We know each other with the vendors. We chat about our health […] I see families running the same stall, the son selling, while the father is sitting behind, watching, resting. It is so nice to see families united like this”, he adds. Lockdown has prevented Don Francisco from having his more intimate dialogues with his family – the cemetery where he used to go and see his relatives is shut.  Besides, the closing of all churches has taken other moments of reflection from him.

Going to the bakery provides another chance for greetings and smiles: “I now buy bread every three days, to avoid going out too often. With the bakers, I used to have a short conversation. Sometimes, even the master making the bread would come out to say hi to us, the oldest oneswho are in more danger.” All these little everyday interactions are spaces of socialisation for older adults such as Don Francisco, especially if they are alone. All these small interactions have been reduced or put on hold in the last four months.

Don Francisco’s experience also illustrates the limitations and contradictions of some of the measures taken to enforce lockdown. In Santiago, it is mandatory to have an official permit to go out. This can be downloaded from the police station’s website. Policemen patrolling the streets and security guards at the entrance of the supermarkets usually ask for this permit. After being mugged on the street last year, Don Francisco rarely goes out with his smartphone. ‘They prevented me from entering three supermarkets because I did not have the permit..!’ —Don Francisco complains vividly—‘I hope we, older adults, do not starve. Who is going to feed old loners like me, if we can’t go into the supermarket?” Fortunately, one supermarket allows him to go in without the permit. “I will not say the name, in case this conversation is intercepted”, adds Don Francisco in a WhatsApp voice note. As much as he likes technology, he is also worried about unwanted surveillance.

Digital literacy can be a powerful tool for older adults to fight isolation. Don Francisco loves gadgets, from the solar-powered moving flowers he has in his little garden, to the old mobile phones he repairs to pass the time during the lockdown. He is well-versed in the use of the smartphone. Many of his contacts, however, are not. “Last week I talked to Doña María, she is a charming lady about my age, but the phone call lasted 10 minutes…that is too expensive!”—he shares in another audio message. Indeed, phone plans are very affordable if one restricts themselves to WhatsApp communication but expensive when it comes to regular phone calls. Don Francisco uses WhatsApp with me regularly and we often have WhatsApp calls of up to an hour, sometimes even more. He also receives many WhatsApp chain messages from a couple of his contacts. Still, Don Francisco considers these to be a lower form of communication. “Those are things people do not write, they just forward them”, he states with a dismissive tone. Now and then, however, he expresses gratitude in WhatsApp groups when someone forwards a video of an old song he liked.

Despite all the setbacks, Don Francisco is eager to ‘overcome the pandemic’. He really wants to see the world post-COVID-19. For the time being, the pandemic has made him a little lonelier. Now and then, Don Francisco even takes his smartphone when he goes out and uses it to film the streets. He sends me a video message while sitting on a bench in an empty square.

This is one of the things I miss the most’—he says—‘sitting on a bench, looking at people passing by. Sometimes one of them will sit down next to me, and we will chat. I miss that a lot.’

The COVID-19 crisis in Santiago: the increased vulnerability and isolation of older adults

Alfonso Otaegui23 April 2020

Street market during quarantine in Santiago. CC BY-NC Alfonso Otaegui

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.

 

Street market during quarantine in Santiago. CC BY-NC Alfonso Otaegui

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.