A guest post from the frontlines of digital exclusion, by Rohan MacMahon, December 2021
I know a man who lives on the streets of central Auckland. I’ll call him Hemi. We first chatted when I saw he’d been sleeping in our local park. Another time I bought him a burger when I bumped into him outside the local takeaway shop. More recently he’s been sleeping in the bushes next to the supermarket, but he moves around a lot and right now it’s not clear where he is.
While he’s homeless, he has been housed in the last few years by Lifewise, the social services organisation which I chair. However, he told me he lost his Housing First* tenancy as he “had a few too many friends over”. This is not uncommon. Lifewise has seen many landlords and neighbours who are only too happy to complain about an ex-homeless person who looks a bit different from them and may have some noisy friends over to stay in their apartment.
It’s not clear if Hemi has had his COVID19 vaccine shots. You would imagine not.
He doesn’t have a phone. **
He has no obvious contact with Government services, the media or the health system.
Let’s look at how Hemi is expected to lead his life in a world of vaccine passes. If he hasn’t had his shots, he will be unable to go lots and lots of places. But even if he has, he’ll need to show his vaccine pass for entry to places like cafes, some churches – and even Auckland Libraries, previously a haven for the homeless. He’ll need to show his vaccine pass on an app which he hasn’t installed and doesn’t know how to use, on a phone he doesn’t own. If his imaginary phone gets broken, stolen or runs out of power, he’ll be unable to use the app. And while he may be able to get his vaccine pass printed out at Lifewise’s Merge Café on Karangahape Road, at his local pharmacy or the like, realistically are we expecting him to do so? Will he keep his print-out handy at all times in spite of his living conditions? Will he have photo ID available to prove his identity?
My point is not to disagree with vaccination or with vaccine passes. At the risk of stating the obvious, the more people get vaccinated, the better protected we all are against COVID19.
My point is that Aotearoa’s invisible people just had another layer of exclusion added to their lives. We need them to talk with us, to trust medical advice, and to get vaccinated for their own safety as well as ours. Instead, we’ve just made it harder for Hemi and his friends to participate in society. We have “othered” Hemi, making it even less likely he will get a warm welcome next time he parks up next to a local café, just when we need his support to squash COVID19 infections.
This is not a small problem. Stats NZ says New Zealand had 42,000 “severely housing deprived” people in 2020, not far off 1% of the total population.***
Most homeless people have addictions to alcohol and/or other drugs, as well as and mental health challenges. They are very likely to have a real distrust of Governments and the medical system. An extra layer of digital exclusion is not going to help at all.
Vulnerable people deserve their agency, their free will and their human rights. They should be afforded the opportunity to participate in the real world, and the digital world, just like the rest of us. As access to digital services is not universal, a reliance on digital tools like the current vaccine pass system creates a risk of leaving disconnected people outside the system.
We are in an uneasy place right now. Most of us have had two Pfizer shots and can feel OK about our place in the world, albeit one which will continue to feature minor inconveniences like masks, social distancing and vaccine passes. Businesses and community facilities will be safe if only vaccinated people are able to access them. But a notable minority are outside this world. Whatever their reasons, they deserve our empathy and our best efforts to help. Let’s remember the kindness of the team of 5 million.
Rohan MacMahon is chair of Lifewise (https://www.lifewise.org.nz/), an Auckland-based social services organisation, and was a founding team member of the Digital Equity Coalition Aotearoa. The views expressed are his own.
* Lifewise and partner organisations like the Auckland City Mission house the chronically homeless through the Housing First programme. You can find out more here: https://www.housingfirst.co.nz/.
** Lifewise will offer Hemi a phone next time we can reach him, as we are lucky to have access to some cheap and functional Android smartphones.
Photo credit to Mihály Köles