It's time for youngsters to take up the cudgels for seniors and disabled in today's digital world

Tan Weiyun
A civilized society should allow people to run quick, but also allow some to walk slowly, despite their alienation from a pandemic society running on apps.
Tan Weiyun

Shanghai has been in strict lockdown for more than a month and its people have become accustomed to the stay-at-home "new normal" while they fight for food and other life necessities from one shopping app to another.

But there are some groups of people in this dilemma who might have never put their fingers on a smartphone before. They are old or disabled, not knowing what to do when the world outside is totally changed.

In a China News Week story published on April 30, Shanghai visually impaired resident Wen Qing was reported as trying to cook a meal on a gas stove for the first time in 47 years, resulting in her left index finger being burned and blistered.

The woman was not able to snatch food online, and she and her blind husband lived only on the food distributed once a week or fortnightly by the community. "But they were all raw foods," she told China News Week. Due to their visual disabilities, the couple had eaten pre-cooked or half-processed meals for decades.

Several days ago she received two cans of lunch meat and a vacuum-packed bag of salted duck. The woman immediately stored them in the fridge. "They're the straw we're going to clutch at if things get worse," she said.

In Changchun city of Jilin Province, where the latest round of COVID-19 has just been brought under control, a heart-breaking video went viral last month. An old man, who apparently didn't know about online shopping, was at a loss in front of a supermarket which denied him making an offline purchase.

The staff worker on the spot required the man to place his order through the WeChat platform. The old man seemed totally disoriented. "What's WeChat? Where can I get a WeChat?" he asked. He stood there, bowing his back, like a lost child.

The worker in the closed supermarket shouted something back at him. The man implored, "Please have pity on me. I'm begging you!"

It's so sad to see this. He didn't know what WeChat is; all he wanted was simply to buy some food with cash. Since when have old people lost their right to go into a shop just because they don't have a smartphone?

As the video was burbling through social media networks, the local government responded the next day. They found the old man, and brought him rice, vegetables and milk.

This incident seemed to have ended on a note that was not that bad, but it was not the only case about elderly people seeking offline help in a world increasingly dominated by online gadgets. It was not isolated, it was part of a phenomenon.

Young people can get the information, find help and make their voice heard in different channels and on different platforms. What about the elderly groups?

Many of them know nothing about the Internet, and some probably live alone. How do they struggle through this difficult time, especially in a digital era when a smartphone with Wi-Fi becomes a life necessity? They've survived through wars and natural disasters, but they might be left behind this time.

Aside from timely government help, as in the case of Changchun's old man, we young people should take it upon ourselves to help the elderly as well. It's our responsibility.

Young people can decide to have no children, but they must have parents. A civilized society should allow people to run quick, but also allow some to walk slowly.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic at the end of 2019, I've taught my parents to scan QR codes, to shop online, and to reserve a doctor's appointment on hospital apps. But they sometimes forget how to call a taxi on the Didi app, and always feel sorry for being annoying when they ask me for help.

The seventh national census reveals that China has 80 million disabled people, and 264 million people aging over 60, 70 percent of whom are either illiterate or have only elementary education. They have made their contributions to this country, but today many of them are "digital refugees."

One benchmark for a well-developed society is how it treats its disadvantaged groups and helps them to live with dignity. We should be nice to those who walk behind, because maybe tomorrow we're the ones who are left behind.

It's heartening to hear of many friends who have also exerted themselves to help the elderly they encounter in daily life, especially during the current fight against the pandemic. Try it some time.

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