The call for universal access to cheap data takes on a new dimension in this Covid-19 reality we find ourselves in.

Access to the internet should not be a privilege available only to those who can afford it.

 

 

A groan of dismay in many South African households as President Ramaphosa announced that the lockdown would be extended until April the 30th. While the extension was expected, it was the thought of being cooped up for another two weeks that floored us.

For many families, the novelty has worn off and the atmosphere has become strained.

For teenagers, this must be a glimpse of what hell could be like – being forced to share the same space with your parents 24/7.

Add to this, the absence of domestic help, which even the lower middleclass deem the norm, and the situation can become quite explosive.

An intended characteristic of the lockdown is to limit social contact. The resultant consequence is a feeling of being cut off from the world. Not seeing friends, family and colleagues adds to the burden of stress that comes with Covid-19 pandemic.

Technology has been the saving grace for many of us.

It has enabled us to stay in touch with the people who are important in our lives and assure our loved ones that we’re only a phone call away.

A few weeks ago, I did my first ZOOM with the family. It felt incredible that we could all see and speak to each other, in real time, over the computer, even though we were all so far away from one another.

I was gushing when it was over and keen to tell everyone about it, only to discover that everyone uses ZOOM, the video communications app which allows you to communicate with upward of a hundred people simultaneously and free of charge for 40 minutes.

I have had an overwhelming desire to reconnect with old friends and former colleagues these past few weeks. While this has been nourishing for me, it has also brought home the severity of the coronavirus pandemic. Almost everyone I’ve been in contact with knows of someone who has succumbed to the disease.

For me, it is a former colleague from Jordan, and an acquaintance in the United States.

It is sobering when you know the virus’s victims personally.

The world has changed forever. We are in the midst of one of the biggest social experiments in the history of mankind. Who would have imagined, that in the space of a few weeks, everyone on the planet would be self-isolating and washing their hands frequently?

That businesses around the world would shut down overnight and plunge millions of workers into unemployment. For many it’s the first time that the uncertainty of a paycheck has become a reality. Who would have thought that entire cities, and countries, would restrict the movement of citizens, and that the streets and parks would be devoid of people.

That we would witness the cancellation of major sporting and cultural events, with no clear idea as to when these activities would resume. That new rules would have to be drawn up for centuries-old social practices like gatherings and funerals. How we interact with each other is being redefined daily. We will think twice about shaking hands. Maybe even stop the delightful habit of kissing each other on the cheek in greeting. Who do we hug?

When all of this is over, we cannot go back to our old ways. The world of work will change. Social distancing will remain a priority. Factory floors will need to be reconfigured and automation and the use of robots to do certain menial tasks look a lot more appealing now. We will find more and more ways of doing things remotely. There is likely to be a decline in air travel, both for business and for leisure. What are the implications for the airlines and the people who work across the board in the aviation industry? Video calls can replace the need for face to face meetings, be it for business or social contact. We can do our jobs or carry on with our studies remotely with internet connection.

We are all going to be more self-aware of our health and our immune systems. The environmental arguments to save the planet are no longer academic. We have seen over the past few months the impact of reducing pollution has had on the earth. Access to clean water and basic hygiene cannot just be the purview of the rich and the middle-classes anymore. The pandemic has shown how community health and access to health services, for everyone, impacts on society as a whole.

Never before has it become so evident that our approach to education must change if we are to equip our children for the changing world. As Bob Dylan’s song warns us, “the order is rapidly changing”.  Historically the world changes gradually. Even after the disruption of wars or revolutions, things quickly settle back to what we are familiar with. What we’ve learnt in the past three or four months, is that things can change dramatically overnight. We need to prepare ourselves for these changes.

In West Africa, they say that access to mobile internet is a human right. Without access to the internet, you cannot interact with the world in a way that is meaningful. Those on the fringes of society will become more marginalized and desperate. The internet has also become a primary source of entertainment through streaming and gaming platforms. The call for universal access to cheap data takes on a new dimension in this Covid-19 reality that we find ourselves in. Access to the internet should not be a privilege available only to those who can afford it.

Back to the President’s extension of the lockdown. Of course, there are ways to deal with the tedium. It’s been suggested that maintaining a routine helps. I’m actually starting to get tired of maintaining my routine, but I will carry on doing some of the stuff that has kept me occupied this past few weeks. Trying to do something meaningful every day can be challenging but this can also be a time to learn new skills. Cooking has taken on a new meaning for me. I now spend my days thinking about ingredients and nutritional values. Using elements of the house, like steps and staircases and household furniture as gym equipment. You can learn to play a musical instrument with lessons from the internet. Or try those yoga moves – after all nobody’s is watching. The main thing is to try to keep busy.

Stay inside and don’t forget to continue washing your hands. It’s just for a few more weeks (we hope). The coronavirus too will pass.

By Nick Jacobs