COVID-19 has forced many Canadians to work remotely. But what happens to the Canadians who are unable to access the digital domain?

COVID-19 has caused many Canadians to operate from home. However, many low-income families have found it difficult because they don�t have access to technology. PHOTO: SPENCER YU/ARTICLE 1

At the start of 2020, COVID-19 ravaged the world forcing Canadians to adapt to a new way of life that ultimately changed our day-to-day routines. While many people are aware of the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as not being able to see loved ones and not being able to have social gatherings, many have overlooked one of the larger side effects of COVID-19. Since governments ordered people to isolate from one another, many were not permitted to do work or attend school in person. While this was a mild inconvenience for some Canadians, for those with major technical limitations it meant that they were no longer able to conduct their day-to-day activities.

Cut off from the internet

One of the places that felt the impact of the technology shortage was the Brenda Strafford Society. It’s an organization that aids women and children who have been impacted by domestic violence. “Our vision is to really provide people with the opportunity to receive the support and the healing that they need to be able to transition to the most successful independence that their potential allows,” said Linda McLean, executive director of the Brenda Strafford Foundation. 

In today’s ever-evolving digital landscape, McLean realized very quickly that there would be a need for technology at the foundation, and when the COVID-19 pandemic came, that need for technology increased ten fold. A critical piece of technology that was also required, aside from computers, was working cell phones.

“If a woman comes into the shelter and she doesn’t have a cell phone, she’s really completely cut off from being able to access so many things. You can’t do job searches or connect with any virtual services. She is completely cut off,” said McLean.

Not only do cell phones act as a connection with the virtual world, but in certain situations they can also be a safety device. “A cell phone should be something you can carry at all times so that you are able to make a call for help if the situation becomes unsafe, which is not uncommon when someone is leaving an abuser,” said McLean.

The ERA has donated computers to many organizations across the country. Here are refurbished computers being used by the Brooke Valley School in Ontario. PHOTO: SUPPLIED BY ELECTRONIC RECYCLING ASSOCIATION

A vast majority of the families that come into the shelter are dealing with poverty, which means that they weren’t able to purchase technology in the first place. This, combined with social distancing guidelines, made it very difficult for women and children in need to get help.

“Oh my goodness when the pandemic hit most of the families that we were working with were lower income so many things were challenging when they went virtual. Women weren’t able to work remotely and children weren’t able to attend classes,” said McLean.

Seeing the impact COVID-19 had on schooling and work, the Brenda Strafford Society built computer labs so that the women and children staying at the shelter could continue to do their day to day activities without being cut off from the rest of the world. ‘This has been very brand new for us and it certainly has been used very well. We’ve come into this new world and we are now only using devices that we didn’t even consider necessary to do our work before,” said McLean.

The computer lab would not at all have been possible if it weren’t for a partnership with the Electronic Recycling Association, which provided the Brenda Strafford Society with the technology it needed to transition into this new way of living. “They have been involved with us on a number of levels; they’ve certainly been a contributor in terms of financial donations and providing us with technology,” said McLean.

Giving new life to old tech

The Electronic Recycling Association (ERA), started in 2004, is a non-profit organization that seeks to get computers into the hands of the people who need them the most. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it became increasingly difficult to do so. “We find that a lot of companies, instead of donating their items which we normally receive, are either selling it to recoup the cost or they are hanging on to it for another year or two before they invest in new equipment,” says Sally Tran, marketing coordinator at the ERA.

The technology shortage not only impacted Canadians, but according to an article by The Wallstreet Journal, prices are expected to increase by 10 to 20 per cent. As a result of this, many Canadians are unable to get their hands on equipment at all. This, along with the shipping delays, means new products are having a hard time making it to Canada. “We are unable to do a lot of community events that we normally do to collect items from communities around here because of COVID-19,” says Tran.

Despite this, the Electronic Recycling Association is still doing its best to ensure that technology makes it into the hands of the people that need it the most. “We lend a laptop program because we found that with a lot of households that multiple people are sharing one computer and at that point how do you decide which child gets to learn?”

That’s one of the reasons Tran is urging Canadians to do whatever they can to reduce electronic waste. “Just because something is sitting in the closet and collecting dust doesn’t mean that it can’t be refurbished for somebody else,” said Tran. She also noted that even if a machine is broken, parts could be salvaged from it and be used to create a new computer that is functional.

“This is pretty much the worst case scenario right now. I’m pretty sure we are going to get a lot of angry customers because a lot of people don’t understand the semiconductor shortages and it’s not our fault.”

Obada herzawy
Short stock 

Retailers were amongst the first to feel the crunch when it came to the technology shortage, with major corporations such as Best Buy struggling to keep items in stock. “It definitely affected us more than I thought it would,” said Best Buy sales associate Obada Herzawy.

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, one of the hardest hit sectors was the technology sector. Companies were not able to operate at maximum capacity so they scaled back production, leading to a massive shortage of tech items in major retailers. Most notably video game systems and smartphones are scarce with many customers struggling to get their hands on the latest gear. “We get shipments of 50 to 70 PS5s at a time and they sell out within hours because as soon as they list them on the website people start lining up outside the store,” said Herzawy.

The technology shortage has caused scalping to become a larger issue now more than ever with people needlessly buying new devices only to sell them at a higher price online. To combat this, Best Buy has implemented a system in which every customer’s information is checked before they are able to purchase items that are in demand. “One time we had this kid come in and he was maybe eight or ten years old and he just broke down crying when we told him the PS5 was out of stock. So I hate that people just keep coming back trying to get more when there are people just trying to get a Christmas present,” said Herzawy.

Sanitation has been a major concern over the COVID-19 pandemic and as a result the ERA have made sure to thoroughly clean each and every computer before donating it. PHOTO: SUPPLIED BY ELECTRONIC RECYCLING ASSOCIATION

Because of this Herzawy is encouraging people to hold off on the upgrades and to keep their devices a little longer than they usually would. “When people are trying to get a higher end phone we just ask them what they are going to use it for and then try to get them to get the ones below them if they aren’t going to use the ones with all the features,” said Herzawy.

This, in combination with the recent floods in B.C., has made it even harder for retailers to get stock in. “This is pretty much the worst case scenario right now. I’m pretty sure we are going to get a lot of angry customers because a lot of people don’t understand the semiconductor shortages and it’s not our fault,” said Herzawy.

Advancing in the face of adversity

Another one of the groups that works with the ERA to provide computers to those that are in need is the Making Changes Foundation. For 25 years they have been empowering women to make meaningful contributions by providing them the resources they need to pursue meaningful work. In 2017, Making Changes introduced a technology training program where immigrant women can learn technical and software skills for jobs in web development.

“The impact of the pandemic has also increased the need for more women and men in the technology industry, as well as, the future development of the technology industry in Calgary,” said Cathy Coutts, the executive director of the Making Changes Foundation. 

Due to the pandemic Making Changes was forced to move classes online, which meant that more women were now able to attend because they no longer had to worry about transportation or child care. However, that did mean that more computers had to be given to the people who didn’t have access to one at home. 

Thankfully, the Electronic Recycling Association was able to supply Making Changes with the equipment to ensure that the women were able to continue their education in the technology field. “The program is offered to immigrant women and we provide soft skills and the skills needed to understand Canadian business culture,” said Coutts.

Without this partnership, the training program might not have been possible at all.

“If we weren’t able to get the resources for this, that meant that we would have to have gotten them elsewhere. It’s really helped us move forward in making sure that all women participating in the program did have access to a laptop,” said Coutts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how relevant technology has become in our daily lives. “It has been demonstrated that we’ve come to a new place and it’s a part of social justice and social equity that we strive for,” said Mclean. 

While it is uncertain if the technology shortage will end anytime soon, it is all but certain that it won’t end as long as COVID-19 is ravaging the global market.

However Canadians can find some comfort that organizations such as the ERA, the Brenda Stafford Society, and the Making Changes Foundation are doing everything in their power to make sure that people have access to technology and can remain connected to the world.

A computer lab built from equipment donated by the Electronic Recycling Association.