There’s only one news story dominating all outlets, social and mainstream media, online and offline conversations these days: COVID-19, the novel, highly infectious and potentially lethal coronavirus.
The situation is new to us all and changing so quickly that by the time you read these words, you will probably have experienced the impact of new restrictions, new statistics and new – if perhaps temporary – ways of working and living. International borders are closing, states of emergency are declared in more and more countries, schools close, cities empty, and, as lockdown is imposed, colleagues, families and friends are separated in isolation.
It is dramatic, fast-paced, confusing and frightening to many. As the epicentre of the outbreak moves westwards through Europe to the Americas and Africa, the power and extent of globalization becomes ever clearer. The ease and speed of international travel we have grown used to in recent years has left few countries unaffected as the virus voyages invisibly around the world.
Previously unimaginable confinement measures such as self-isolation, curfew, lockdown, strictly-enforced social distancing -these are truly unprecedented times. And there’s one thing that’s becoming increasingly evident: the critical importance of digital technologies in today’s societies is heightened in a time of crisis such as this.
Digital communication is vital as an effective tool for governments to share rapidly changing updates, directives and essential information. Platforms such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Alibaba Facebook, Skype, Google Hangouts and Zoom (to name just a few) connect colleagues, friends and family as never before – across streets and towns, as well as countries and continents. Social isolation, and the very real danger to mental wellbeing that ensues, can be combatted through email, SMS, messaging and video applications. Businesses of all sizes can communicate efficiently details of revised opening hours and the availability (or not) of products and services.
Digital entertainment is also hugely important in combatting mental distress in extended periods of isolation. Who would wish to be closed up indoors for days on end without digital television, streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney + or video games – especially if you share a house with children or teenagers?
As schools shut, education is moving more rapidly online than could ever have been envisaged mere weeks ago – including by many teachers, adapting and adopting curricula and classes on the hoof. Phones, tablets, laptops and desktop devices are operated by children from primary school to university ages, with large numbers of online platforms offering services for free or expanded options for educational institutions. Meanwhile, the adults whose work permits it are teleworking: discovering the joys and challenges of virtual team meetings and conference calls, adjusting to new rhythms, working patterns and environments through digital technology.
At a time where physical proximity, let alone actual contact, is moving from social norm to signifier of irresponsible, antisocial behaviour, virtual is virtuous. The coronavirus has no power in our virtual worlds: video calls are not contagious – and digital truly can deliver us from the danger of pandemic.
But there are challenges. Will the networks be able to cope with such huge increases in traffic and demand? Will teleworking and e-education now prove unstoppable, or will this massive, sudden change in behaviour turn out to be a temporary blip? Will the digital divide deepen into a COVID-19 digital divide, cutting off millions from the opportunities and basic realities of a new digital society? What can be done to avoid such a scenario, to ensure equitable, fair access to digital technology in all sectors?
And what of digital health? The enormous potential of remote diagnosis and treatment has been evident for many years, hampered in its realization by issues such as data protection, supporting infrastructure, coordination between medical institutes and digital education for medical professionals and patients alike. Can we use the COVID-19 experience to invest in developing more efficient digital health options that protect frontline medical staff in future contagions or outbreaks through the power of the virtual?
How will the COVID-19 crisis change our use and appreciation of digital technologies? What lessons will we learn as individuals, societies and governments? Can we already start to draw on best practices in differing industry sectors, government approaches or individual companies? How can we protect the most vulnerable in society through digital tools and technologies – including the sick and the elderly? Should our right to digital connectivity be openly acknowledged by governments, enshrined in law and action?
These are not issues that can be solved by individual governments or entities by themselves. Now, more than ever, a cooperative approach is needed to solving these urgent questions, bringing stakeholders from across governments, industry and international organizations to the table to find mutually beneficial solutions.
Collaboration is key. Which is why ITU, the UN specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs), is leveraging its broad and diverse global membership and reaching out to the tech community at large to use the full potential of ICTs during the COVID-19 crisis, including the launch of the Global Network Resiliency Platform (REG4COVID) and. And why international events such as ITU Digital World 2020, ITU’s leading tech gathering for governments, major industry stakeholders and small and medium businesses from around the world, are more important than ever. The event combines exhibition, high-level debates and knowledge-sharing, networking and awards ceremony for the best innovative tech solutions with social impact. And the debates at the event will be addressing just such questions on the future of digital technologies and the nature of digital transformation around the world.
We’d love to hear your opinions on all the questions raised by the role of digital technology in the age of COVID-19, both right now and in the weeks and months to come – and in tackling or mitigating future global crises of public health or natural disaster as well. Let us know your thoughts!
Stay up to speed to ITU’s COVID-19-related initiatives by visiting this dedicated webpage.