Elderly left behind by spread of digital services in China after coronavirus

PHOTO: Reuters

Digital solutions for the post-Covid-19 world have left many older people in China battling to adapt.

Community centres try to help, tech companies tailor products for the elderly and the government has policies that address the issue.

But according to experts, more needs to be done to help people like 72-year-old Wang Yingru – who, without her family’s support, could not even buy groceries or make medical appointments.

When the Covid-19 epidemic began, private services in China quickly digitised, placing emphasis on information gathering to contain and stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Now digital QR codes are needed to enter shopping centres and banks, for example, and to use public transport.

Hospitals rapidly moved making reservations onto mobile phone apps, while many supermarkets stopped accepting any means of payment other than by mobile phone.

Wang used to pay by cash at supermarkets, could use public transport freely, and made medical appointments by walking into a hospital and speaking to a receptionist.

Read Also
Japan's elderly are determined to resist push towards cashless society
Japan's elderly are determined to resist push towards cashless society

But in the post-Covid-19 world that’s all changed, and Wang struggles to keep pace with the changes.

“I asked my children to set up an electronic wallet on my phone, then I tried it at a supermarket,” she told the Post. “After a few times, I gradually got the hang of it.”

However, she is still not able to do essential things such as making a medical appointment online, hailing a taxi using her phone, or transferring money to others.

News reports during the coronavirus outbreak highlighted how widespread these problems are in China.

A representative of Beijing-based NGO See Young (centre) shows an elderly client how to use digital devices and mobile phone apps.
PHOTO: See Young

The State Council, the executive branch of China’s central government, is aware of the problem. In November it issued policies intended to help old people make better use of smart technology to access medical treatment, recreational activities and public services.

This builds on the work of community centres, which have for years been trying to keep the elderly up to date.

Sui Mingzhe, supervisor of a Beijing-based charity for the elderly, See Young, said it started passing on digital know-how to elderly clients in 2011.

“Back then, we mostly taught them how to use a computer and smartphones,” he said.

From teaching computer skills, volunteers progressed to showing the elderly how to use messaging and social media app WeChat, create a musical album, and make purchases online.

Sui believes that with the elderly now spending more time at home, they have even greater digital needs.

Elderly Beijingers learn how to use digital devices at a session provided by See Young, a charity which has been helping old people navigate the digital world since 2011. 
PHOTO: See Young

“There’s more requirement for them to participate, such as using health QR codes, to shop online, or make appointments on their phone. They went from choosing the digital world to being forced to learn.”

The pandemic’s impact has seen the number of elderly digital users in China increase by 36 million from March to June – a jump from 6.7 per cent to 10.3 per cent – according to a China Internet Network Information Centre report released in September.

Tech companies have been targeting the elderly for some time, recognising the enormous financial potential of the market they represent. They have designed elderly-friendly products with enhanced features.

Read Also
WeChat Pay & AliPay: Workarounds for Singaporeans to set up China payment apps
WeChat Pay & AliPay: Workarounds for Singaporeans to set up China payment apps

Chinese smartphone brands such as Huawei, Xiaomi, and Oppo all have “senior mode” phone features, including larger icons, bigger text sizes and screen reading.

E-commerce giant Alibaba’s shopping platform Taobao launched family accounts in 2018, enabling young users to help their older parents pay for items in their shopping cart. Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post.

By October, more than 20 million elderly users had registered for a family account, a Taobao spokeswoman said.

Alibaba introduced online and offline education, live-streaming courses, and special customer services to help teach elderly users how to shop online.

In 2016, Didi, China’s largest ride-hailing services platform, launched elderly-friendly functions such as “ride-hailing for others”, “caring mode”, and “paying by relatives and friends”.

In “caring mode”, elderly users can issue one-click orders with up to five preset, regularly used addresses; there is the option of enlarged font display, and a simplified billing process.

On WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app, children can now make payments on behalf of their elderly parents. It also offers an easy way for elderly users to check their health insurance online.

Read Also
As China turns towards facial recognition payments, are QR codes on their way out?
As China turns towards facial recognition payments, are QR codes on their way out?

However, most of China’s elderly still don’t use most digital services – people like 78-year-old street vendor Zhang Baohua. In his free time, he sells salted duck eggs on the street. Like all street vendors, he has been using a QR code to collect money, but admits he has no clue about where the money goes.

Every night when he goes home, his children help him count and retrieve it. They also help him make medical appointments, pay for transport and do the shopping, he says.

Zhang prefers to rely on his own experience to navigate today’s world. Unable to go outside without a QR code during the virus outbreak, Zhang instead chose to stay home all day.

“I’m at this age now, there’s no use learning,” he said.

Huang Zhaoqi, an analyst from investment research firm EqualOcean, said it would take a collective effort by government, families and society to help the elderly enjoy the conveniences of a digitised world and understand what they are interested in.

“The elderly’s needs in daily life are complex and diverse. The market lacks smart devices and products in these areas,” she said. “There’s a need for companionship and entertainment programmes, as well as medical services, online shopping and voice-assisted technology.”

Read Also
Alipay opens mobile payment platform to foreigners in first for China
Alipay opens mobile payment platform to foreigners in first for China

Sui, the community centre director, agrees.

“The tech companies need to do more than ‘making the font bigger on apps’, he said. “Even if the elderly could see all their content, they don’t necessarily need to use all the functions.”

He said it was vital others help the elderly become familiar with the digital world.

See Young has called for families to take 10 minutes to teach their elderly members one digital technique every day. At the moment, it is still largely elderly people themselves who figure out ways to survive the digital revolution.

“It all depends on your own willingness,” Wang said. “If you won’t commit to learning, who is going to help you?”

For the latest updates on the coronavirus, visit here.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.