Digital Refugees of the COVID-19 Crisis

Insight categories: Perspective

Many of us are “digital citizens”; we are used to living in a technical world. Some of us were born into it, others migrated to it and became “naturalized,” and a few are still around who helped create that world in the first place.

To us, living online is an everyday thing, and has been for a long time. Video conferences, “drop boxes,” live chats, and many other forms of digital communication are everyday, normal things for us. Even before the crisis, we shopped online, got our entertainment online, connected online — and we are therefore very much at home with the digital aspects of the current environment.

While we “citizens” certainly miss our daily contact with actual fellow humans, alternate means of connecting are second nature to us. While not as satisfying, perhaps, they are also not in themselves a major challenge for us to use and cope with.

This is not the case for a large number of people, some of them our own loved ones. Some people are being forced by the COVID-19 crisis to connect in ways they never have before. For them, this is its own source of stress. These are the “digital refugees” who find themselves driven to our native or adopted “digital country” as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

I have several of these “refugees” in my own family, and I bet you do too. Like many Silicon Valley couples, I am a “techy” married to a “non-techy." My wife is, in fact, a clinical psychologist who—while certainly not tech-averse—is also not a digital citizen. She has found herself having to meet clients and staff using—to her—unfamiliar video conferencing tools. While she has been pleasantly surprised to find that therapy can still be very effective in this way, the tools themselves drive her crazy. As a fellow shut-in due to shelter-in-place orders, I’ve found myself in the tech support role at very frequent intervals. I’ll bet that most of us “citizens” also find ourselves giving aid to the “refugees” in our circle.

My 89-year-old father is also a very surprising refugee in our digital world. My siblings and I have been trying for years to get him connected to the internet, but he has been resistant. This is despite the fact that when you google my name (“James F Walsh,” same as his) my father’s memoirs about the Korean War in the Library of Congress are page-ranked much higher than anything I’ve ever written.

As another couple sheltering in place (he and my Mom still live independently), my Dad was cut off from his sole connection to the Internet—the public library. Persuaded by my daughter, his granddaughter, he finally agreed to try. I sent my Dad my last-generation iPad and—to my surprise and delight—he loves it. He has been FaceTiming the whole family, accessing the internet, responding to email—and generally taking to the digital age like a duck to water. I was thrilled to see this refugee to our land—at 89 years old—look like he wants to stay.

I in no way want to minimize the plight of physical refugees who are fleeing from oppression, warfare or starvation and trying to find a better life. In fact a member of my own family experienced this early in the 20th Century. However I am struck by the parallels of the current situation to the physical one.

Forced to retreat by this disease from many forms of engagement with the “physical” world, we have fled to a digital one. While many of us are at home there, others most definitely are not. We who are at home find ourselves in a position where we must help these refugees live in our world. Some of those refugees will like this new land and want to stay; others will “go home” as soon as they can. And all of us, refugee and citizen alike, will be very much altered by this event—let’s hope, in some ways at least, for the better.




Dr. Jim Walsh


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