Author : Pratnashree Basu

Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Apr 07, 2020
The virtual space uptick during Covid-19

The COVID-19 timeline has progressed quite swiftly. It is still an evolving scenario and chances are that until an effective vaccine is developed, which may take anywhere between several months to a few years, we will have to adjust our lives around it. The other alternative is to control the spread of the infection till a point where there are no new cases, which again is not a possibility that we are close to as of now. Quite naturally, this has prompted increased calls for social distancing as the primary measure which can curb the infectivity. Life as we know it is on pause. And we don't know for how long. Maybe the most challenging aspect of the pandemic is the uncertainty – not knowing how, when, for how long and what afterwards. There are many far reaching changes that the world is currently undergoing as responses to the pandemic and there would be long term and maybe even permanent impacts of many of these. Besides the economic, political and social consequences, a major difference between the ongoing pandemic and earlier ones is the exponential expansion and use of the online space like never before. The practice and realities of social distancing have resulted in three broad trends with respect to the virtual space. All of these trends are to varying degrees fuelled by the necessities of negotiating the uncertainties underway and the need for swift action.

First, it has resulted in pushing governments, and various multilateral institutions to alter and expedite their modes of functioning. Virtual networks are being activated on many levels ranging from government directives, intergovernmental interactions, international mitigation mechanisms to trackers offering information and help. Indeed, this is a time of many firsts as we witness government performance which is often prone to bureaucratic impediments and bound by pre-established protocol, rise to the situation and respond to the crisis as it unfolds. The administration in India for instance is collaborating with Google, Whatsapp and Facebook to supplement its information outreach campaigns and has launched the MyGov Corona Helpdesk which is a chatbot designed to respond to queries related to the pandemic. Governments in other countries too are resorting to virtual platforms to expand the reach of their response mechanisms as they address COVID-19 which include the use of AI for diagnosis in Australia, robots for delivering meals and medication to patient in Singapore and even tracking patients in near real time to map the spread of the contagion in South Korea.

Second, another impact that the COVID-19 has and continues to have is the fact that it is changing how we work. The concept of working from home is not novel as freelancers and digital nomads around the world have been working remotely and irrespective of their physical locations for more than a decade. The phenomenon has witnessed a rise in remote working with the advent of start-ups and advances the digital arena in terms of the nature and extent of what is achievable. Nevertheless, the fact that commuting to work can be substituted for workforces across a large number of sectors is something that has been made a practicable option because of the restrictions on physical movement imposed by the pandemic. While some companies scramble to adjust to the challenges of working remotely such as data security and legal breaches, the fact that this pattern of work is feasible, albeit born out of duress, would be an important marker for how businesses operate in future. And this may have major implications in so far as economic and environmental factors are concerned including, but not limited to lowering operational costs of businesses, reducing carbon footprint in urban spaces. The demands of remote working are manifold but in the long run, it holds the potential to contribute to value creation and to what is referred to as stakeholder capitalism.

The third trend is the surge in social media usage. A study by Nielsen on social media activity during January-March 2020 saw a 50 times greater rush from 0.4 million in January and 1.6 million in February to an incredible 20.3 million till March 24 – the same period during which the spread of the virus was known and was increasing. Social media is often criticised for its many potential flaws as well as the adverse impacts that it is proven to have according to various studies in psychology. But it’s important to understand that social media is a platform and hence open to good as well as bad intents and purposes. Issues such as the spread of misinformation for instance have to be countered on online forums through the spread of awareness and by boosting technological and legal checks to curtail the same. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – which has been at the centre of responding to the pandemic and adapts its messaging on the basis of information that is shared by people on social media – found that there was increase in social media chatter regarding a possible drug for the treatment of COVID-19 and could immediately caution against the dangers of unapproved drugs.

In and of itself, the virtual space weighs more as a useful tool than as a counter-productive one as it augments the horizon of engagement and enables people to become more self-sufficient by enhancing choice. As the pandemic plays out, these networks are also enabling us to raise concerns and help each other in situations of emergencies and it is also being used to reinforce collective action on adhering to self-quarantine, social distancing, lax government-led health responses and so on. Similarly, while instances of adverse psychosomatic impacts exist, on an individual level, in trying times such as the en-masse quarantine during COVID-19, social media is helping in making–coping a shared experience for those who have access to it.

Life during lockdown is testing each and every one of us in various ways. Now that we are physically confined, our lives have moved online as we learn to take things one day at a time. It has become an entire world unto itself and now that most of the physical world is under some form of lockdown, the virtual space has become the only way to stay connected, stay informed and very importantly, to participate. And the impact of these three trends will find their place among the defining factors that shape the post-COVID world. The virtual space has become a leveler of sorts and as we move forward after the dust settles, it would probably continue to be more and more intertwined with our lives even though the ongoing rush at the moment may decrease gradually.

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Pratnashree Basu

Pratnashree Basu

Pratnashree Basu is an Associate Fellow, Indo-Pacific at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, with the Strategic Studies Programme and the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy. She ...

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