For Joanne Older, 53, from South Norwood, the shift online hasn’t been as simple as setting up a computer in the living room or resetting the router when there’s an unstable connection. That’s because she has no access to either of these things. Joanne has never had any internet in her flat, mainly because it was an expense she thought she could live without: “It’s a tiny little flat and I love it. When I first came here, I never envisaged spending so much time here. I thought I’d be out and about a lot. I’m on a very limited income and I spend very little on food for instance – I live a very thrifty life. Even just the basic [internet and phone] plan is £25 pounds a month and I can’t justify it.”
One major change that Joanne, who is a recovering alcoholic, has witnessed is access to mental health support services. A report published in February of this year by Public Health England said: “Over recent months there has been an increase in the number of people […] seeking support online and many have more complex problems than were being presented prior to the pandemic.” Data published through NHS Digital on psychological therapies shows a sharp increase in the number of referrals in the four boroughs between March and October 2020. NHS City and Hackney went from receiving 690 to 970 referrals and Tower Hamlets increased from 695 to 865.
Before the pandemic, Joanne attended Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings in person: “Seven and a half years ago I went to rehab for alcohol addiction, so I’m in recovery from that.” Since everything moved online she says things have become difficult: “I’ve always done three or four meetings a week and when that all switched online, in the beginning that was tricky because that was using up my data very quickly.”
Although she says these meetings were a “godsend,” they couldn’t offer the same level of support that she had been used to: “At the start I would try and treat it as an actual meeting, I would get dressed up as if I was actually going to it. But you know after a while it would sort of [subside]. I would get distracted. I’d turn off my video and go make a cup of tea and things like that. It’s nothing like face-to-face contact and just being around people, you can gauge their emotions.”
It has also been more difficult for her to get used to job applications, which she used to do at South Norwood library’s computers. Now, with a phone being the only device she can use, she has found the application process a struggle: “A couple of Fridays ago, I had to do this video and it was really tricky,” says Joanne. “Even the email that came with it said you can make use of your local library or your job centre or friend or family computers, but none of that is available [to me] at the moment.” As a result the process is taking her far longer to do on a mobile than it would have been in person or at the library: “I’d also have these questions pop up with only 30 seconds to answer them and I had to keep on moving into a spot where I [had] good reception to be able to submit the question. Prior to that, the initial application had lots of situational assessment questions that took me about three hours to do!”
For Joanne, a lack of good access to the internet and to a proper device meant that she was at a significant disadvantage of performing well in the application: “Afterwards I sent an email and said: ‘You know, this was not my best presentation by any means, and I’d be happy to see you face to face.’”
This may not be a temporary problem. South Norwood Library is one of five libraries at risk of permanent closure following Croydon Council’s plan to make savings following the announcement of their bankruptcy back in November last year. The council has justified their closure because of a significant decrease in physical visits to libraries. The council’s figures show there have been 35% less people using the library in person between 2015 and 2020.
However, according to Libby Hamilton, 41, chair of Friends of South Norwood Library group, South Norwood Library has the second-highest uptake of computer bookings in the borough after the Central library, with 14,448 hours of bookings in a year before the pandemic shut everything to the public. The group’s research has also found the area is in the top 18% of socially-deprived areas in the UK. Closing libraries, Hamilton argues, would therefore leave this part of Croydon lacking an essential resource.
For Joanne, the opening of the new South Norwood Library was something to look forward to, as she happens to live across the road from where the new library had been built on Lawrence Road. “My closest library [after South Norwood] is probably an hour’s walk and again, it’s going to cost money in transport. When it was open it did have a lot of people using it, the computers were always in use.”
There are some aspects of life she hasn’t been able to change during the pandemic. A Waitrose report released last summer showed 60 per cent of people in the UK were using online shopping more than in 2019. The report says the top three reasons for switching online were: that people didn’t want to go to the supermarket, that someone else could carry bulky items for them, and that it was simple. For Joanne, however, it was not an option: “I don’t do online shopping because there’s always a minimum [spending amount], it’s around £40, which is not what I ever spend.” Luckily, this hasn’t phased her too much: “I lead quite a simple life … but I’ve tried to remain positive through all of this.”
Despite these significant drawbacks over the past year, Joanne is undeniably an optimist at heart: “It has been tough, but you just have to expect it. When I’ve been doing applications, doing emails, looking at stuff and dealing with life admin, I just have to try and crack on with my limited resources,” she says. “I’ve got a life through all of this. I’ve got grown up children and we’ve been relatively unaffected. I’m pretty good on the whole, but it has been tough.”
Click here to read more of the London’s Digital Divide series: #LondonsDigitalDivide.
Coming up tomorrow: the silver surfers who have been getting online during the pandemic.