A Pandemic, Digitalisation and Us

So here we are — in the 4th month of the new decade, a year where we all thought we had 2020 vision. But things couldn’t have possibly gone anymore astray. We’re caught in the middle of something that is spreading by leaps and bounds and will undoubtedly change the course of our lives, society and the future.

The first wave of COVID-19 news came in January, after having been identified in December 2019. But in January, we were worrying about the Australian bush fires and discussing Brexit.

And before we knew it and at a speed we are all still trying to fathom, the virus was everywhere. Literally everywhere, resulting in this global health emergency. It was declared a pandemic by WHO on the 11th of March.

COVID-19 is the name that has been coined to refer to the respiratory illness caused by the novel Coronavirus, also known as the Sars-CoV-2. Indicative symptoms include shortness of breath and dry cough, accompanied by fever and fatigue. Whether the disease is air-borne is still under debate, but it has been confirmed to be spreading through close contact and respiratory droplets from sneezes and coughs [1], and is most contagious when the person is symptomatic [2]. As much as we all are vulnerable to the virus, senescent people and people with underlying medical conditions are at the forefront. Not to forget all the healthcare workers, who are constantly in contact with those exhibiting symptoms.

As a result, the scientific community, universities and biological companies across the world have come together at an unprecedented speed to understand the virus and to develop a vaccine that could bring things back in control.

But then again, aren’t so many things about this entire situation unprecedented? It’s overwhelming and just the right amount of chaotic.

And here’s why: the mass digitalisation we’re all subject to. This is our battle not only with a virus (that you can kill with soap, when outside your body) but also digitalisation.

Because of the pandemic, we’re all more connected than ever. Our potential — as creatures who’ve developed this level of connectivity and as organisms who will stay connected with each other no matter what — is being realised at a behemoth scale. With every online class and midterm, with every online homeschooling lesson, with every grandma calling her grandchildren, with every star live-streaming their concert, the world is becoming a little more connected; each of these activities reinforces the fact that no one is too young or old to learn how to use technology. We’re all learning through innovation and creativity. It’s almost Utopian on certain levels. Alan Rusbridger, chair of the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism, has described this as an opportunity for people to imagine “a world recast through virtual networks.” [3]

We’re all trying our level best to keep up with one another and loved ones; the situation has given me the chance to reconnect with people I thought I’d never hear from again. And I’m sure we’ve all discovered that there’s nothing that we used do on a regular basis that we cannot do online (all those meetings that could have been emails…).


But to every bright and beautiful thing, there is a deep seated ugliness. And this time around, this ugliness is disguised as misinformation and panic. Thanks to the entire internet at our fingertips, immense amounts of time in our hands and uncertainty induced fear in our heads, misinformation is on a rampage.

As if daily updates from the WHO, our work institution and news outlets weren’t enough, there’s unsolicited chain messages on WhatsApp, conspiracy theories (fun to read, not to believe) and our friendly neighbourhood YouTuber ready to inform us of something new and share with us opinions, when all that matters right now are facts, correct scientific facts. In a time where we don’t know how each day is going to turn out, panic because someone couldn’t hold their breath for more than 10 seconds is the last thing we need [4].

Avoiding misinformation may seem difficult — how do you separate wheat from chaff? Almost everything on the internet seems reliable and there is always the looming trap of confirmation bias.

Trust the experts. Trust the experts writing for established sources – The New York Times, The Guardian, the World Health Organisation etc. Trust in science. If any piece of information seems even slightly off, cross-check it with these sources. And most importantly, treat the misinformation like the virus and don’t pass it on [5]. It’s really not that difficult to tell fake news apart — drinking truck loads of alcohol is NOT going to disinfect our systems.

If we cannot fight digitalisation at its worst, we do not deserve it at its best.

It is imperative that we use the means of communication at our disposal in the right ways – to work from home, catch up with friends over video calls, watch Netflix and stay optimally informed – not too much, not too little.

If we cannot fight digitalisation at its worst, we do not deserve it at its best. How we emerge from this pandemic could change how we communicate in the future, and this change is going to be for the better.

Use these mediums to spread positivity, if anything. Emphasize the need to stay at home, share with people how you’re keeping yourself entertained during isolation. Articulate through videos and messages that every single one of us has the power to save the world and that our social responsibility is greater than we can imagine. This is our chance to live our childhood dreams of becoming a superhero, crazy as that may sound. This is not just about protecting ourselves, but also our communities and everyone around us. Highlight the fact that collective decisions we make today will impact millions of people in the next year. [6]

All of this will pass and we will be reunited. None of our brunch mimosas or arcade dates are going anywhere. Everything will fall back into place but in due time. And the sooner we mutually agree on that, the better. And among the many things we will gain out of this, our understanding of human relationships will particularly stand out. We will love each other a little more, hate each other a little less. We will cancel fewer plans and we will worry less.

About a very distant image of the Earth, Carl Sagan said, “…it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” It couldn’t be more appropriate than it is today.

Pale Blue Dot, as taken from the Voyager Space 1 probe, 1990


References:

[1] https://www.livescience.com/how-long-coronavirus-last-surfaces.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coronavirus_disease_2019

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/29/coronavirus-fears-rediscover-utopian-hopes-connected-world

[4] https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters

[5] https://medium.com/@alicefleerackers/covid-19-misinformation-more-viral-than-any-virus-a3b4d3e07890

[6] https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/196496/coronavirus-pandemic-could-have-caused-40/

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