Digital Technology During COVID-19 Lockdown – Helping or Hindering?

Published on 30 April 2020
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Image Source: Pixabay

For an avid video-gamer, being socially distanced with access to digital gadgets is a dream-come-true, but for the parent in-charge of home-schooling the young teen, it is a nightmare!

It is a techno-centric world.  The Internet rules the world.  No, data is not the new oil.  Data has long surpassed the value of oil!  Smartphone is the digital genie catering to  every human whims and fancies!

Digital technology saves time, cost and life itself.  Huge advances in digital technology have brought unprecedented economic prosperity to nations engaged in trade and commerce.  Due to the pandemic lockdown, not only schools but also courtroom sessions, doctor’s appointments, summer internships, music concerts, sporting events, and even weddings and funerals are going online!  With public gatherings called off, even Pope Francis in the Vatican is live-streaming Sunday prayers to the faithful.

Digital technology is a valuable tool during an epidemic outbreak to keep communications alive with constant updates to minimize risks.  It is being used to comb through mounds of data from journals, databases and clinical trials to shortlist drugs, treatments and experiments to pursue to combat COVID-19.  Due to the pandemic, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population is under some kind of lockdown to promote strict physical distancing protocol, to avoid burdening the overworked healthcare system.  As a result, the demand for digital tools, broadband connectivity and telecom services have surged.  In India with a population of 1.3 billion, there are 19.1 million wired broadband connections, 1.15 billion mobile subscribers, and 643 million mobile broadband users.  People under home-quarantine are increasingly using their Internet-enabled digital devices – smartphones, tablets and laptops – to work, learn, play, shop and socially connect with each other.

Big Tech is on a bull run!  There is a tech-tussle for digital supremacy and whoever owns the latest technology or the next generation mobile networks rules the world and moves the economy.

1.0  Technology is Helping

Necessity is the mother of all inventions.  Creative digital experiments are underway during the draconian yet critical COVID-19 restrictions!

Remote Work

Distributed workplace is the answer to climate change, cutting commutes and costly real estate, and public safety.  According to Modern Workplace, remote work is the future, as it helps to collaborate across time zones and promote flexible working, employee diversity,  inclusion, and problem-solving.

Software as a service (SaaS) is in great demand, where the user is provided with access to software over the Internet web browser or cloud by purchasing it on a subscription basis.  Collaboration apps like Zoom, WebEx, Zoho Meeting, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet are accessed for virtual meetings and conferences, and WhatsApp and Slack chat apps for messaging.  In China, there is Alibaba’s Dingtalk and Bytedance’s Lark for the same.

Even scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California are working remotely from home, managing the movements of Mars Curiosity rover over 200 million kilometres away!

Virtual Schools

Learning is going online.  Synchronous sessions online are alternated with asynchronous activities.  There are webinars and virtual reality lessons.  Teachers are using PowerPoint to screencast content, Zoom app for broadcasting video lessons, WhatsApp for giving instructions, and live streaming through Google Classroom, YouTube, Skype,  Edmodo and Moodle.  Indian Initiatives include Zoho Classes app for remote learning, open access to the National Digital Library, Swayam Prabha for telecasting educational programmes, and online curriculum from National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS).

Thousands of videos demonstrating experiments from laboratories at top research institutions are delivered online to millions of scientists, educators, and students worldwide.  Older people are upskilling and learning new tech during the lockdown.  Younger people are spoilt for choice online.  New global initiatives for education include the Minecraft Education and Microsoft Education.  One can learn basic filmmaking and animation from Khan Academy or virtually tour the museums and iconic locations around the world with Google Arts & Culture!  For the first time in its 174-year-old history, the Smithsonian Institute has released 2.8 million images to download, use and reuse, free of charge.  Digitised collection from its museums, research centres, libraries, and zoo are released on an open access online platform.

Virtual Healthcare

The classic epidemic control measures include case isolation, contact tracing and quarantine, physical distancing, and hygienic measures.  With digital technology, COVID-19 countermeasures have become faster, more efficient and large scale.

Telemedicine is harnessing technology for diagnosing, treating and preventing diseases.  Telehealth and econsultations prevent overcrowding in hospitals.  Healthcare workers are unburdened and there is no need for personal protective gear when dealing with high-risk patients far away!  Patient information is easily stored in the cloud.  Dependable bandwidth and a simple video setup are only needed.

Social media can also be used to check for disease outbreak hotspots through a large number of tweets emerging from a particular place, in case of Twitter.  Genomes of the coronavirus are shared in open access databases, which is helping researchers around the world, rapidly develop tests for this novel pathogen.

From trialing at-home test kits, manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE), predictive modelling to forecast new public health threats, sorting potential drug and vaccine candidates for SARS-CoV-2, facilitating scientific literature review, as well as, providing access to hand sanitiser formulation, tutorials on DIY face masks and how to effectively clean and disinfect, digital technology is showing the way.

Digital Surveillance for Public Health

Cell phone metadata is used for contact tracing in Israel and the US.  Facial recognition to spot people defying quarantine rules in Russia and thermal scanners at train stations to spot patients with fevers in China are some of the ways in which Artificial Intelligence (AI) and big data are being used to monitor and contain COVID-19.  An app developed by MIT and Harvard is being used for contact tracking people and sharing this data for common use to curb the spread.

Some countries like Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea managed to initially contain the pandemic by deploying digital surveillance to impose strict quarantine measures, monitor suspected cases, and trace people’s movements, apart from widespread testing, stockpiling PPE, alongside robust pandemic preparedness.

Surveillance camera footage, smartphone location data, and credit card purchase records can help trace a quarantine truant to establish virus transmission chains and movement of people.  Cell phone location data can be used to trace how many people are obeying government orders.  Ethical use of such data provides immense benefits for the law-abiding citizenry, welfare for the poor, and punitive action for the violators.

Open-Source Research

Thanks to digital technology, there is instantaneous information sharing and collaboration.  Harnessing the collective intelligence for greater good is the trump card for human species in the 21st century.  Web-based scientific data-sharing platforms such as PubMed, GenBank, ChEMBL, KEGG, PubChem, EMF-Portal and CDD Vault, along with Wikipedia, DBpedia, Smithsonian Open Access, and Wayback Machine are a boon for research.

Skyrocketing subscription prices of academic journals kept science locked up behind paywalls and made it unaffordable for most researchers outside US and European universities.  But now due to the pandemic, a free and open source access to more than 30,000 coronavirus research papers have been made available online for the global research community.  Some academic publishers like Elsevier, Wiley, BMJ, Annual Reviews, and Scitrus have unlocked crucial scientific articles related to COVID-19, so that researchers all over the globe can gain access to this vast repertoire of knowledge to fight the virus during this humanitarian crisis.

Citizen Science

Anyone with a smartphone can participate in COVID-19 Citizen Science Project and help fight the pandemic.  Although people are physically distant offline, such online programs help epidemiological study of infectious diseases, where information is collected in real-time rather than depending on retrospective memory.  People, participating in such prospective studies rather than retrospective studies, can help identify the association between variables and risks.

Digital technology is enabling collaboration on projects and in generating knowledge without leaving homes.  There are projects to watch and count penguins, seals and stars in the galaxy!  Citizen science is helping people living in isolation to make meaningful contributions.

News and Free Press

To seek out authentic information at this time of public health crisis and economic downturn, people are logging into established online news outlets and news apps.  Free press is being represented through a virtual library in Minecraft, a popular online game.  It is created by the non-profit, Reporters Without Borders, to share uncensored news freely worldwide.

Entertainment

According to research, the need to connect is as fundamental as the need to eat and the lack of it can trigger brain craving similar to hunger pangs.  Chronic isolation is similar to long-term undernourishment.  But digital technology can help with connecting online.  Social media use during physical distancing can overcome the feelings of depression, loneliness, isolation and segregation.

People are using social apps for video-chatting, connecting with each other on Facebook, Google Duo, FaceTime, and Houseparty, and seeking entertainment from YouTube and Netflix.  Gym and yoga classes are going online with instructional videos.  There are Skype book clubs, Zoom art classes, Periscope jam sessions, WhatsApp information exchange, Instagram cookery classes, and twitter DMs.  Parallel tech in China is booming, namely TikTok, Kuaishou, Weibo and WeChat.

Online Gaming

For most of the people who are suddenly forced to stay indoors in isolation, gaming can be a healthy option to keep mentally sane.  World Health Organization (WHO) is supporting an initiative #PlayApartTogether by the game industry, which is designed to get people to play virtual games and also educate them about social distancing practices to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

VR games, esports and live streaming apps like Twitch, YouTube Gaming Live, Facebook Gaming and Tencent’s multiplayer games are all thriving.  Gaming does have social and health benefits when played in moderation.

2.0  Technology is Hindering

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Image Source: Unsplash

Digital technology has created some unique challenges.  For the user, it is both liberating and imprisoning.  If not used mindfully, technology can wreck lives.  User privacy is being sacrificed at the altar of convenience.  People’s biologic, biometric and genetic details along with their movements, words (and thoughts?) are neatly stacked in digital databases.  Will the digital surveillance retract after COVID-19 outbreak is curbed or will it continue on even after flattening the curve?  Is decentralization here to stay?a

Loss of Privacy

Privacy seems to be the price to pay for containing the novel coronavirus, but there is a fear that digital snooping with contact-detecting apps on smartphones will outlast the coronavirus lockdown and become a permanent feature.

Coronavirus Infodemic

It is the first pandemic to get incessant coverage on social media.  Misinformation spreads six times faster than truth in the digital age, according to a study by MIT.  Online infodemic of misinformation, disinformation, rumors, speculation, bogus medical advice, dubious health claims, hate speech, neuroses and conspiracy theories must be avoided and social media companies must do more to combat the problem, according to WHO.

Cyberbullying and Exploitation

As online learning is on, children must be taught about online safety protocols, boundaries and how to stay alert to signs of exploitation.  Apps, games, privacy settings and overall Internet use must be reviewed and monitored.  Teachers and parents must maintain open communication with young people, to teach them about cyberbullying, inappropriate content viewing, sexual messaging and triggers of self-harm.  Also the teachers and parents must stay updated about young people’s shorthand online lingo and apps used to hide illicit materials from prying eyes!

Online video meetings are Zoom-bombed by malicious users and hackers who intrude with disturbing, lewd and racist contents.  Publicly shared meeting links become easy targets.  It is a cybersecurity threat as hackers can gain control of in-house devices.  The end-user must understand how technology works and be alert to phishing attempts.

Stigmatisation and Abuse

Issuing emergency alerts on cell phones, online breakdown of individual’s daily schedule, details of their residence, employer, and being able to identify them individually have helped South Korea contain the coronavirus.  Doxxing is a problem, which is to spread embarrassing rumors online about people.  Coronavirus patients are stigmatized online.  The point to be noted is that transparency is crucial during COVID-19, but abuse and stigmatization of frontline workers and patients should be strictly avoided, and if not heeded, made a punishable offence.

Digital Divide in Education

Uneven access to digital devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones and poor broadband Internet connectivity can deepen the digital divide for students living in large families in rural, remote areas.  Children living in poverty have less access to technology than their well-resourced peers.  Remote learning is a poor substitute for classroom teaching.  Those with less academic background and lack of parental support may struggle.  Younger people, with higher income in wealthier nations are more digitally connected.  South Korea has the highest percentage of Internet users at 98 percent, while it is 38 percent for India.

Test-optional Movement

Entrance exams are going online and there is even a test-optional movement that is trending!  Students with access to test prep and tutoring always fare better than the ones who have no access.  Tech tools may be flattening the privilege and promoting equity among the student community, but it predominantly depends on the universal availability of broadband connectivity and a robust digital infrastructure for all students and teachers.  There should be governmental interventions to benefit the needy students and vulnerable learners, and an education designed more equitably.

Virtual Colleges

Physical colleges are shutting down and virtual universities are opening up due to COVID-19!  Visiting a campus, attending an interview face-to-face and building camaraderie with other students are being replaced by virtual tours, video chats and online classes.  Lectures, tutorials, assignments and assessments are moving online.  E-learning is a challenge!  It will take time for young people to adapt to the intangible as colleges online become just websites with images.

Space Debris

To provide reliable high-speed, low-latency Internet access to under-connected parts of the world, a constellation of low-orbit satellites are being launched by private companies.  People can then connect their devices to the space-powered Internet.  Flooding the earth’s orbit with internet-beaming satellites sounds both exciting and disturbing.  Who owns the skies?  What about the accumulating space debris?  Probably this approach is easier than overcoming roadblocks on earth, such as challenging terrain, high costs and politics!

Lack of Research Review

To keep up with the rapidly evolving novel coronavirus, the doctors and researchers with little time to read, write and publish in academic journals, are using social media to share information on COVID-19.  With this digital hyper-connectivity, conversations in real-time are finding shortcomings and solutions in the treatment of COVID-19.  Research on COVID-19 is coming out faster – it is neither reproduced nor vetted by reviewers.

Excessive Gaming

When excessive video gaming supplants personal duties and priorities, it becomes a problem and professional help is needed.  The World Health Organization (WHO) termed it as a mental health disorder in May 2019.  As of now, it is being promoted as a health measure, but it can quickly turn into an unhealthy obsession for a few.  There is a chance that a reformed gamer can relapse.  Video gaming while socially distancing at home may be an entertainment option, but a person who is stressed, isolated and unemployed due to COVID-19 can become addicted to video gaming.

Digital Devices are Germ-carriers

On an average, the smartphone is touched 2,617 times per day by a typical user.  Cell phones are hotspots for germs because they are carried everywhere from the boardroom to the bedroom and bathroom.  An average phone is seven times dirtier than a toilet seat.  It is held close to the eyes, nose and mouth of the user.  Microorganisms can move from fingers to the phones, as people handle their phones all the time.  Hands are easy to clean, but the phone needs a soft microfibre cloth and an alcohol-based sanitiser to keep clean safely.

Nosocomial Pathogens

According to research, the hands and phones of healthcare workers in hospitals were found to be potential sources of nosocomial pathogens, especially MRSA.  Norovirus and bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli were some microbial pathogens found on the devices.  Apart from strict hand hygiene, phone use in healthcare setup should be restricted to emergency calls only.

Sitting is the New Smoking

Sedentary behaviour is on the rise as people go online to learn, work, shop and reach out to their digital devices for leisure too.  Children glued to screens lack exercise.  It is detrimental to health in the long-term and associated with chronic disease, obesity, cardiovascular problems and cerebrovascular events.

Computer Vision Syndrome

Overuse of screens lead to computer vision syndrome.  Digital eye strain and video game vision are on the rise due to longer time spent playing video games.

3.0  Conclusion

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Image Source: Pixabay

Modern technology is both fantastic and catastrophic.  From being a tool of distraction for many, technology has become central to people’s lives due to the coronavirus pandemic.  While most people may struggle to stay on task and follow-through on commitments, for a disciplined self-starter, remote learning or working is a godsend.  White-collar workers from resource-poor countries, the differently abled, and those responsible for dependent care can easily collaborate online.

Although intrusive mass surveillance by governments is slammed by critics, in the post-corona world it seems fair to make use of surveillance technology for the greater good.  But over-reliance on digital technology should be avoided.  COVID-19 has showcased that the dominant human species, which makes up just 0.01 percent of all life on earth, has reached the border of its collective knowledge.  Digital technology, fueling rapid global collaboration, is finding novel ways to fight SARS-CoV-2.  Mainstream medical treatments are being supplemented by traditional alternative treatments.  Similarly, digital resources must be utilized to aid human resources and not replace them.  People must use tech and not be enslaved by it.

Lessons learned from the coronavirus lockdown must renew the push for rural digital connectivity and digital equity.  Internet access is a human right and must be made accessible to all, along with basic digital skills.  As children navigate the world of Internet, they should be provided with the resources to make a better decision, to stay safe online, be aware of dangers as well as opportunities.  Air travel, wasteful expenditure and carbon footprints can all be avoided by adopting digital technology.  There is fake news, panic and racism online, alongside authentic information, altruism and hope.

Digital Technology does not alienate but accommodates all.  It has to take a global health catastrophe to make people realize the worth of such inclusive tech!

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