Digital equity for all ages

The growing number and share of older persons in Asia and the Pacific represent success stories of declining fertility and increasing longevity; the result of advances in social and economic development. This demographic transition is taking place against the backdrop of the accelerating Fourth Industrial Revolution. But COVID-19, with its epicentre now in Asia and the Pacific, has exacerbated the suffering of older persons in vulnerable situations and demonstrated the fragility of this progress.

Asia and the Pacific is home to the largest number of older persons in the world — and rapidly ageing. When the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted in 2015, 8 per cent of the region's total population was 65 years or older. By 2030, when the Agenda comes to an end, it is projected that 12 per cent of the total population — one in eight people — will comprise older persons. Fifty-four per cent of all older persons in the region will be women, and their share will increase with age.

Asia and the Pacific has made much progress in connecting the region through information and communication technologies (ICTs). At the same time, it is still the most digitally divided region in the world. Approximately half of its population lacks Internet access. Women and older persons — especially older women — are the least likely to be digitally connected.

COVID-19 has demonstrated how technologies can help fight the spread of the virus, sustain daily life, support business continuity and keep people socially connected. It has also shown that those who are excluded from the digital transformation, including older persons, are at increased risk of being permanently left behind. Digital equity for all ages is, therefore, more important than ever.

The next few years provide an opportunity for Asia and the Pacific to build on its successes with regard to population ageing and rapid digital transformation, learn from the tragic consequences of the pandemic, and promote and strengthen the inclusion of older persons in the digital world. The 2022 Fourth Review and Appraisal of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing and the further elaboration of the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway will allow countries to develop policies and action plans to achieve digital equity for all ages.

Among those policies, it is particularly important to promote digital literacy and narrow digital skills gaps of older persons through tailored peer-to-peer or intergenerational training programmes. In the fast-changing digital environment, developing, strengthening and maintaining digital literacy requires a life-course approach.

Moreover, providing accessible, affordable and reliable Internet connectivity for persons of all ages must be a priority. Expanding digital infrastructure, geographical coverage and digital inclusion of older persons through targeted policies and programmes will improve access, enable greater social participation, empower older persons, and enhance their ability to live independently.

As highlighted in the Madrid Plan of Action, technology can reduce health risks and promote cost-efficient access to health care for older persons, for instance, through telemedicine or robotic surgery. Assistive technology devices and solutions can support more and safer mobility for older persons, especially those with disabilities or living alone. Social media platforms can promote social interaction and reduce social isolation and loneliness.

The ESCAP Guidebook on using Information Communication Technologies to address the health-care needs of older persons has documented good practices from around the region. It also includes policy recommendations and a checklist for policymakers to mainstream ICTs in policies affecting older persons.

While older persons are among the least digitally connected population groups, they are among the most vulnerable to cyberthreats. It is, therefore, critical to establish adequate safety measures, raise awareness, and teach older users to be cautious online.

As we commemorate the United Nations International Day of Older Persons 2021, let us remind ourselves that the risks and vulnerabilities experienced by older persons during the pandemic are not new. Many older persons in the region lack social protection such as access to universal health care and pensions.

The COVID-19 recovery is an opportunity to set the stage for a more inclusive, equitable and age-friendly society, anchored in human rights and guided by the promise of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind. Digital equity for all ages, highlighted in the 2030 Agenda, goes beyond national interests. Greater digital cooperation by governments and stakeholders is instrumental for both inclusive and sustainable development and building back better. At the regional and subregional levels, digital cooperation can be fruitfully leveraged to build consensus and share good practices, lessons learned, and policy recommendations. These, in turn, can supplement national level policy and decision-making for the benefit of all age groups.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)

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