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What is the Government's Digital Equity plan for Self Isolation and Quarantine? (phase 2 COVID response)


 "The risk of a large section of our society being left to suffer the effects of Omicron alone, with no care and support is too high to cross fingers and hope GP’s will pick up the slack."

With the rising numbers of Omicron in our communities, the government's new approach to self management in Phase 2 is a hot topic. The reliance on digital tools in this new phase of Aotearoa’s Omicron response was clear from the government’s live briefing on the 16th February.


Understandably, because of the expected numbers of infections, there is a big shift to personal responsibility in managing cases with no follow up from healthcare professionals outlined, where previously healthcare monitoring and gateways to support were built in. In Phase two (so from 16th of February) if you test positive, you receive a text from the 2328 number confirming a positive COVID test with links to the new COVID 19 Health Hub site with online contact tracing form and information about things like how to look after yourself and what help is available. 


The digital tools supporting self management were showcased in great detail in the live briefing but glaringly absent were the practicalities and specifics on how the government supports the digitally excluded or those who don’t have the confidence, digital skills, appropriate device or internet to use the tech-based self management pathways. Or access the internet based information necessary to keep themselves safe.


It took a question from a journalist asking specifically what was in place for those without internet access to reveal a vague answer that in the absence of digital connection, responsibility then sits with each region. GP’s and other health services were given as examples of what/who will be filling this gap. The acknowledgement that a chunk of people in Aotearoa are unable to access support digitally is a start but more clarity is desperately needed. 


This can’t be left to chance. The risk of a large section of our society being left to suffer the effects of Omicron alone, with no care and support is too high to cross fingers and hope GP’s will pick up the slack. The government has a duty of care for all citizens, not just those who are digitally connected.


Can you imagine how it must feel, as a citizen who is not digitally connected, to not be provided with clear pathways to the same level of care as the fully digitally literate? We have a fair idea because DECA comms platforms have been running hot with people feeling betrayed, angry and very scared after watching this announcement. 


It is vitally important that the government has a better plan for people and communities who are digitally excluded, especially since many are likely to be those who will require greater support and care if they and their families contract the virus. Māori, Pacific peoples, and people in migrant, senior, rural, disability or lower socio-economic communities are all more likely to have digital access issues, and at the same time are the communities that can be our most vulnerable when the virus strikes.


          “24% or almost ¼ of our population live with some form of access need or disability & not all have access to or can use technology, so my concern is that not enough is being done to ensure that this group is being supported.” 


Genevieve McLachlan from Adaptive Technology Solutions also had this to say,

“As a person with low vision, but also working in the digital accessibility space, I am immediately concerned about how people with access needs (disabilities) & others who do not have access to technology will be supported through the process of registering their information in relation to testing positive for COVID-19. Even for those with mobile phones, having to try navigating through an online form, which from the demonstration, does not look like it has very good colour contrast, may prove too difficult at an already stressful time. Accessing the link from a text message isn’t always easy for people with low vision, such as myself & many others. I also need to ask the question, is the online form accessible for people who are blind using screen reading software?”


We do recognise that the government has put in place a few things to mitigate the issues of digital exclusion. The COVID 19 Health Hub site is free to access/does not require any data, which will help with affordability issues. It was announced that there is a phone number for people who don't have Internet access and there are local coordinator hubs being set up to support prioritised groups. 200 community facing workers will also be added to this COVID response workforce. 


But it is not clear whether this will be enough to ensure that people with digital access issues receive the same level of care and guidance as those using digital tools.  Or whether the government understands that in fact people with digital access issues may need greater care and guidance if there is to be equity in the outcomes experienced between these two groups. 


There is no clarity for how people with digital access issues can connect with the initiatives that the government has put in place for them.  Where can they find the phone number? How do they get in contact with people who can help them?  These things are easy if you have Internet access and know how to use it, but impossible if you do not.


Digital Equity Coalition Aotearoa (DECA) is really concerned about this. We’re hearing diverse voices of the digital equity community working on the frontlines supporting the vulnerable question whether anyone with a digital equity lens was engaged in the design of this rollout and/or the comms delivery of Aotearoa’s phase 2 self-management plan. 


We look forward to clarification in the days and weeks to come and much needed reassurance for communities who need it most.

Photo credit: Xylene Ladores