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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Digital divide a major challenge facing Thailand amid ageing society

Senior citizens are likely to be at risk of getting left behind due to lack of digital literacy, as Thailand is among Asia-Pacific countries undergoing a major digital transformation.

Thailand’s digital economy is expected to reach US$53 billion in 2025 with a 15 per cent compounded annual growth rate and is projected to double to approximately $100 billion to $165 billion in 2030, according to the e-Conomy SEA Report 2022.

However, the country is already an ageing society, with around 13 million people aged 60 years or above compared to its population of 66.05 million, according to the Department of Provincial Administration’s data last year.   

Srinivas Tata, director of UNESCAP’s social development division, said the Asia-Pacific is lagging behind at the global level in internet access as a proxy for access to digital technology due to the digital divide.

Citing the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), he said 53.4 per cent of households in Asia and the Pacific had internet access in 2019, compared with 57.4 per cent globally. 

The proportion of individuals using the internet in 2019 totalled 44.5 per cent in Asia and the Pacific, and 51.4 per cent globally, he said.

“According to 2022 data from the ITU, less than 15 per cent of people aged 75 years or older have access to the internet in Thailand,” he said.

He noted that the percentage of older persons with similar access in Cambodia and Indonesia was even lower. In Hong Kong, China or Japan, internet access of older persons is much higher, he added.

The National Statistical Office’s survey on household use of ICT in the first quarter of this year showed that 62.1 per cent of the elderly aged 60 years or above in Thailand had access to the internet and 37.9 per cent of older persons did not.

Some 84.3 per cent of Thai seniors have access to smartphones compared to 15.7 per cent who do not.

The grey generation living in rural areas are at risk of being left behind by the digital transformation compared to those living in cities, as 44.2 per cent of them do not have access to the internet, and 18 per cent do not have access to smartphones.

The ‘grey’ digital divide

Citing results of a survey of older persons’ associations, Tata said older people have basic digital literacy skills, such as how to use cellphones and access social media.

However, they lack skills to conduct financial transactions, access government websites, and they are in great need of training in cybersecurity, he noted.

Even though the Covid-19 pandemic had enabled many people to stay connected digitally, he pointed out that the digital divide affected people with disabilities or older people in rural areas.

“They have less access to digital technology, which also remains costly to some, and they often lack a network of family and friends who can assist them in overcoming learning barriers to digital technology,” he said.

Moreover, older people may not be capable of using some functions of digital devices in the absence of technical support.

“Using a digital device alone is challenging, but it will be more difficult when it comes to some applications with complicated steps like the personal verification process,” said Ruttiya Bhula-or, associate dean of Chulalongkorn University’s College of Population Studies.

She said some of the elderly in Thailand have mobility difficulties due to ageing, making it more difficult to verify their identity outdoors like applying for electronic banking services at banks or exercising their social welfare at stores.

She added that online scams also affected the confidence of the elderly in using digital devices as they were wary of scammers and fake information.

“The government should be careful on this issue because scammers act faster [in deceiving others] amid the rapid digital transformation,” she said.

Solution to the digital divide

Both UNESCAP and Chulalongkorn University’s College of Population Studies believe that digital solutions provide an opportunity to enhance cost-efficient service delivery to older persons and reduce inequalities in access to services, including healthcare, financial services and public services.

“Overcoming the digital divide is an opportunity for the old and the young to interact more closely, learn from each other and build bonds and friendships that go beyond learning how to operate a cellphone,” Tata said.

He advised governments and relevant agencies to support older peoples’ associations in enabling them to overcome the digital divide. 

However, countries should not rely on families and the goodwill of communities alone. There should be affordable and accessible digital literacy training and access to digital devices at local levels provided through the public and private sector.

“Closing the digital divide, including by providing access and closing the skills gap, would benefit older persons and societies around the world,” he said. “It will open doors for many who are disproportionately impacted by economic inequality, isolation and lack of access to services.”

Ruttiya, who is also director and coordinator of Chulalongkorn University’s Labour Research and Coordination Research Unit, asked the government to create awareness on how to use digital devices and applications before launching economic stimulus measures or social security schemes, such as the 10,000 baht digital wallet handout scheme.

She advised studying previous measures to see which factors enable people to access government subsidies digitally, such as Khon La Khrueng (Half Each) co-payment subsidy scheme.

“Offering one smartphone per household could deal with inequality, but it would become difficult if its verification system allows only one person to access government subsidies,” she said.

Under the Khon La Khrueng scheme, the government subsidises 50 per cent of the price of food, drinks and general goods, capped at up to 150 baht per person per day.

Eligible persons can register for subsidies via the Paotang application using their ID card. They can either verify themselves using face recognition or the Krungthai Next account, and then set up their six-digit personal identification number.

According to the Finance Ministry, 24.02 million people were eligible to access subsidies under the fifth phase of the scheme from September 1 to October 31, 2022, with total spending of 36.02 million baht.

New scheme, new app

Under the digital wallet scheme, all Thais over the age of 16 years with a monthly income less than 70,000 baht and bank deposits lower than 500,000 baht will receive 10,000 baht via a digital wallet to spend at local businesses.

People and stores can register for the scheme in the third quarter of this year, after which around 50 million eligible citizens will receive subsidies in the fourth quarter.

The registration for the scheme will be made through a new super app called “Thang Rath”, which is available for download on iOS App Store and Google Play, according to the Finance Ministry.

Slightly different from Paotang, people must use both ID card and face recognition to register for Thang Rath application services, while they have to set up their username and password.

“Purchase can be done via state and commercial banks, as well as other types of wallet applications,” former Finance Minister Julapun Amornvivat said on May 24.

He said eligible persons who do not have smartphones could exercise their rights using ID cards, adding that persons with disabilities and bedridden patients could grant rights to their representatives.

The money to fund the scheme will come from the revised midyear budget for fiscal 2024, which authorises additional expenditure of 122 billion baht, while another part will come from the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, as part of its obligation to help fund the government’s campaigns, said Deputy Finance Minister Paopoom Rojanasakul on Wednesday (June 5).

However, the additional expenditure has triggered concerns among the Bank of Thailand and the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC) over budget deficit and impact on financial stability.

The central bank and national economic council asked relevant agencies to pay attention to boosting financial efficiency, such as reducing budget deficit, setting guidelines on improving the efficiency of government revenue collection and allocating funds to repay the government’s debt per fiscal year.

“This will help expand financial space to cope with risks from economic volatility, maintain investors and credit rating agencies’ confidence and mitigate the impact on financial sustainability,” the government source cited NESDC as saying on Thursday (June 6).

Separately, the digital wallet scheme is among four economic plans that could be affected if Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin were to be removed following a petition filed by senators, political gurus told one of Nation Group’s media arm Krungthep Turakij in late May.

Six of the nine Constitutional Court judges voted to accept the petition from 40 senators seeking to remove Srettha as PM. The petition accused Srettha of violating political ethics by appointing Pichit Cheunban as PM’s Office Minister even though he had been once jailed for contempt of court.

The other three economic plans under the Srettha-led government that could hit a snag are economic restructuring plan to boost Thailand’s GDP expansion, disbursement of fiscal budget 2024, and flood prevention plan against an increase in  rainfall due to the La Nina phenomenon.

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