Learning the lessons of the coronavirus pandemic

Learning the lessons of the coronavirus pandemic

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A woman wearing a mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus uses her mobile phone at a shopping district in Seoul, South Korea. (Reuters)

Despite more than 1.3 million confirmed infections and over 75,000 deaths, the world has not reached the peak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis. Far from that, predictions, which vary wildly, announce tallies that will be several times the current numbers, as well as confinements (partial or total) that will last several more months. 

However, we can already see some long-term social effects of the pandemic and we should start drawing lessons, or at least analyzing the events and actions of the last few months, to prepare for the next crisis. Because, let us make no mistake about this, there will be future crises caused by viruses or other things (nuclear reactor accidents, major economic recessions or problems we haven’t even considered yet). Indeed, we had been warned by the cognoscenti about our lack of preparedness for a pandemic like COVID-19, but we did not listen; we let it happen, and most governments reacted badly. Perhaps now we should be more proactive.

I leave aside obvious lessons like improving public health infrastructures: Hospitals, equipment, staff numbers and training, emergency systems, etc. I will rather focus on other lessons, particularly the importance of digital infrastructure, which affects several major areas of society.

The first lesson is the utmost importance of the internet in such crises, as it allows governments to communicate widely and take important actions, such as quickly switching entire education systems to effective online arrangements, including examinations. And places like China, where people could shop online for everything, including groceries, with just a few clicks on their smartphones, were able to implement full-fledged confinements of major cities for two months or more without any public disorder or catastrophes. 

There is no doubt that governments everywhere, with their ministries of information and communication technologies, education, commerce, and other fields, will work to strengthen their digital infrastructures to be ready in the future. The benefits will be immediate: First in commerce, with more activity and growth, and secondly in education, with “blended learning” (strengthening teaching and learning with online components) and novel solutions for remote lectures and examinations, international enrollment, and more. 

Another conclusion that has quickly been drawn from the current crisis is that in-person meetings can be greatly reduced — for better or for worse. Software programs such as Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams have worked so well for millions of people, including for teaching, that many have asked: “Why don’t we do this in normal times?” Virtual meetings have allowed for the inclusion of collaborators who are located very far away and the meetings have tended to be much more efficient — people being more punctual online and less prone to joking and veering on to off-topic discussions. 

It thus now seems certain that remote interactions, both professional and social, will become more and more frequent and will perhaps soon become the default solution. There will be fewer in-person meetings, as even medical “visits” will become virtual consultations, more international collaborations, especially as real-time automated translation becomes a reality, and more people remotely “attending” events (lectures, conferences, concerts, etc.).

I should perhaps say a few words about the prospect of real-time automated translation. Until now, meetings with international participants required everyone to use one language, thus limiting who could take part and with what content. However, software such as Google Meet and Blackboard Collaborate (and probably others) allow for real-time captioning, where the software types the spoken sentences on-screen. Going from there to having the statements automatically and immediately translated and shown on-screen in any language is just one step that could be performed with online software such as Google Translate. We could then have people who do not speak a common language, at least not well enough, who could still conduct a serious, technical meeting from all corners of the world.

To be sure, there are downsides to this online-dominated, uber-virtual world. We humans are a social species and loneliness leads to depression and other ills. We need in-person interaction, handshakes, hugs, kisses, warmth and “quality time” together. Webcams and microphones cannot provide (all) that.

It now seems certain that remote interactions, both professional and social, will become more and more frequent.

Nidhal Guessoum

Moreover, the same digital tools that allow governments to track the spread of infections (starting with the flu) also allow them to track and monitor people’s physical movements and digital actions. In South Korea, a law was passed several years ago allowing the government to track those who get infected and send out that information to everyone in their area in order to try to limit and contain the spread of a virus. In China, facial recognition software is used every day on countless streets, not to mention inside buildings. Needless to say, this raises huge privacy issues.

The coronavirus crisis hit the world suddenly and very hard. It forced us all to react with the tools that were at our disposal. It showed us the areas (public health in particular) where most countries had not prepared well. And it also showed us that digital infrastructures and tools can have huge impacts in such crises, as well as in normal times. Let us continue to draw conclusions and learn from this catastrophe so that we can handle future crises much better.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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