At the best of times, almost 20% of the Belgian population can be considered socially isolated as a result of poverty – and that does not take account of those who are actually homeless.
At a time when social is at a virtual standstill, it is the poor and disadvantaged who are the hardest-hit, according to aid agencies.
The most striking example right now is education: the schools are to all intents and purposes closed, and switched over to online applications such as Smartschool, which allows teachers to set exercises for students to carry out at home.
But just as the question for homeless people is, how to stay home when you have no home? So the problem for school students is, how to take part in an online class when you have no computer and no internet access?
“It begins with education,” said Caro Bridts, an educator with the Flemish welfare ministry. “I hear of children being overwhelmed with tasks via Smartschool. But what about those who have no computer?”
The VRT spoke to a mother of three children aged 14, 13 and nine.
“They have to carry out all sorts of tasks via Smartschool and other digital learning platforms,” she said.
“We only have one computer, so it’s a matter of taking turns. I work with each of them for a half hour, but it’s hard. It’s hard enough to keep them indoors as it is, but I’m worried about what comes next. They’re falling behind. How will they ever make up for that lost time?”
Some provisions have been made. Telenet, for example, has given free wifi to some disadvantaged families, but that doesn’t take care of the shortage, or total lack, or computers in families with more than one child.
Another employee of the welfare ministry says the problem is not new, but the current situation has exacerbated the problem.
“The entry to Smartschool is in any case difficult for this group of people, I hear it all the time. It’s not only a problem of equipment, but also of internet connections and especially the social contacts and experience to get along with online learning, which is often missing. And now, with home schooling – for students who cam study in peace at home with their laptop in their own room, and with parents who can offer support, that works well. But those circumstances are not there for everyone.”