Vivian Song is a Toronto expat and journalist who has been living in Paris for the past 10 years. She has written for The New York Times, BBC, CNN, Vice and Huffington Post UK, among others.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, my brother and I have engaged in a new, tacit and transatlantic family ritual: From his home in Toronto, he sends my parents, who live in suburban Ontario, daily updates on the number of Canadian COVID-19 deaths as a fear tactic. Then, from my home in Paris, 6,000 kilometres away, I conduct regular checks like a drill sergeant to make sure they’re not leaving the house.
It’s a routine we’ve invented and honed out of necessity. The fast-evolving news and rules of this global pandemic can leave even the average media-savvy and digitally literate person scrambling; I know this well, because I’ve had to toggle constantly between news sites in France and Canada to try to keep up with developments both locally and back home. But our parents are Luddites in their 60s and 70s who, as Korean immigrants, aren’t fluent English speakers, to boot.
My 72-year-old father still does all his banking with a teller, refusing to get a bank card. It’s only in the past few years that he’s learned the basics of how to use a mobile phone and Google. My parents don’t have a cable subscription; they get all their news from Korea, thanks to a set-up my brother installed on their TV and computer. And while my mother can navigate YouTube and some messaging apps, her online comfort level ends there.
There has long been a digital divide that has kept seniors such as my parents in an information vacuum. A 2018 report from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) notes that seniors are the group in greatest need of digital access and literacy, followed by low-income citizens, youth and Indigenous peoples. And just as it has with income inequalities and class divides, the pandemic has exacerbated these problems. And now, the very people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 are also being left behind because of their informational disadvantages – with language barriers among immigrant seniors putting them at a double disadvantage.
“We think of social isolation now as someone who doesn’t physically see people," Linda Fawcus, founder and chief executive of Vancouver digital-literacy service Gluu Technology Society, said in that CIRA report. “Soon that will expand to those who are not able to connect to people online.”
So my brother and I have developed our one-two-punch as we’ve been forced to double down on phone calls to keep our parents updated. I’ll be honest, though: There’s been a lot of yelling from this side of the Atlantic.
“Abba,” I say (abba is Korean for dad) in my best no-nonsense voice. “You’re old. You have diabetes and high blood pressure. You cannot leave the house.”
“Can I go out for a walk?”
“What about the bank?”
“But I have to go to Home Depot.”
Were it not for our tag-team efforts, my parents would be left behind, clueless to the latest developments. On the day that Ontario Premier Doug Ford ordered restaurants and bars to shut down, my parents were planning to go out to lunch to meet friends who were equally oblivious.
As a foreigner in an adopted country myself, I can’t help but compare our immigrant experiences, and that’s prompted flashes of uncharitable resentment toward my parents and what I saw as self-imposed alienation and disinterest from the country they’ve called home for more than four decades. I’ve made it a priority to learn French and have made every effort to be engaged in the local community. Why couldn’t they make an effort?
But that’s hugely unfair. I had the privilege of moving to France as a working professional, armed with a higher education and solid life skills. A 2019 Statistics Canada report titled Evolving Internet Use Among Canadian Seniors points out that age, educational attainment and income play a role in internet use, which generally declines progressively with age. In 2016, Statscan found that 68 per cent of seniors aged 65 and older used the internet, and that pre-retirement internet use in the workplace is a major predictor of computer literacy.
My father came to Canada not to live out a whimsical dream (like, say, living in Paris), but because there was no work for him in Korea at the time. Neither he nor my mother spoke a word of English, and their only priority was to make sure that they could pay for food and shelter. He worked on a factory floor for 30 years, pushing through lifelong aches and pains to provide for us; self-improvement – language, digital skills and otherwise – had to take a backseat to survival.
So when COVID-19 scuttled the trip to South Korea my abba had planned this year – a homecoming he had been looking forward to – I sent him a YouTube video of a 30-minute virtual walking tour of Seoul. I asked my mom to open the link for him: Lace up your sneakers, hit the treadmill and pretend you’re in Korea, I suggested.
That’s just one of the ways we’ve been able to chip in through the technology they’re not able to use. My brother has contacted my dad’s pharmacy and arranged to get his meds delivered. We send them instructional clips on proper hand-washing and mask-making. And because they don’t know how to place food orders online and pay by credit card for cashless, contactless delivery, I used a virtual private network (or VPN) to change my internet-protocol address from Paris to Canada so I could send them Mexican dinner from a local restaurant in their city.
From where I sit in Europe, a continent ravaged by the virus, I see that it might still be a long haul for Canada, even if the peak is nearing. But for as long as it’s needed, my brother and I will continue to parent our parents through a crisis that’s uniquely unsettling and destabilizing. That’s just what children of immigrants do.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.