Three months ago, the idea that most video conferences will happen with at least one child or more making a ruckus in the background would have seemed strange, but coronavirus-related lockdown around the world is turning this kind of scene into the norm now. As COVID-19 continues to spread — with more positive cases and deaths being reported every day — people across the world have turned to unique method to tackle the problem and ‘flatten the curve' by social distancing.
In order to prevent the virus' spread beyond the reasonable capacity of healthcare systems, and to protect vulnerable members of society, many are staying at home, going out only for necessary reasons, and avoiding large gatherings. But society needs to keep functioning, and many people need to keep going to their workplaces to be productive.
Another big challenge in this critical time is shortages of key products and goods. Big cities across India have been facing hand sanitiser shortages, while Western countries have seen hoarders stockpile unreasonably large quantities of toilet paper.
With the need for remoteness at this time, our reliance on technology and the Internet is more firm than ever. Tech companies are stepping up to offer better access and features to keep consumers productive and safe even while at home for prolonged periods.
The World Health Organisation's advice to countries is to ‘test test test', but this is easier said than done in most places. The private sector is stepping in, with a huge initiative called Project Baseline by Verily Life Sciences, owned by Google's parent company Alphabet. The company is now offering COVID-19 testing in the Bay Area of California.
The Supreme Court of India is also considering measures to take the courtroom online, with virtual courts coming soon to avoid large gatherings.
Yet at the same time, religious gatherings in India are carrying on unchecked. Given how a church gathering in Korea triggered a domino effect of infections, this is a matter of concern, and virtual alternatives should be sought for such matters as well. Such methods to keep society running smoothly even in the face of a pandemic could change the way we do things even after things have settled.
The point of social distancing is to stay away from crowded public spaces, which naturally means you won't be able to go to the theatre. That's where OTT platforms come in, letting users stream content and stay caught up on their entertainment in the comfort of their homes.
Universal Studios has taken what is perhaps the most significant step in this regard, giving iTunes, Amazon, and other digital platform users in the US access to movies that are still running in theatres (or would be if theatres were open) at discounted rental prices. The Hunt, Emma, and The Invisible Man will be available to rent on iTunes for $20, thereby making it easier for people to watch new movies without having to actually go outside. Upcoming movie Trolls World Tour, scheduled to release on April 10 in theatres (April 17 in India), will be available to stream on the same day.
The reason this is important is because it paves the way for movies to come to streaming platforms sooner after the theatrical run than currently. More users would avoid going out in the hope that the movies they want to watch will be available to stream in a matter of weeks rather than months, shifting viewing habits online in the long-run. Could this be the end of cinema chains, already struggling to make money? Will they go the way of theatres, and become a niche entertainment while the world simply moves on to streaming?
On the other hand, streaming platforms themselves are doing more to offer better and more relevant content at this time. Although not linked to the pandemic, Disney+ entering India will gives users a whole new catalogue of quality content to watch at this time. Hotstar could have handled the launch a lot better, though.
Some services have even been promoting movies such as Contagion and Outbreak as a means to offer consumers a fictionalised but educative insight into life in the times of a pandemic. Meanwhile, a new Netflix docuseries - Pandemic: How To Prevent An Outbreak - makes for particularly relevant viewing at this time.
With more people working from home, Internet speed, FUP limits, and reliability is of the essence. We haven't seen much from the vast majority of Indian Internet service providers in this regard, with the exception of ACT Fibernet; the company is offering free speed upgrades and unlimited FUPs to its users till March 31 to facilitate working from home.
Similar steps are being taken by ISPs in the US, with Comcast taking the big step of offering free Wi-Fi, a waiver on data caps and late payment fees, and a promise to not disconnect any connections during the outbreak. Steps such as these will be remembered by users even after things go back to normal, and show that big companies are trying to do their bit at this time.
After people spend weeks or even months working from home, how many will want to get back to traffic jams and open plan office spaces? If people are able to manage work from home without losing productivity, would their employers also encourage more remote work, in order to reduce the amount of office real estate they have to manage? Although the current lockdown plan is just a short term one, it's impact could well be very long term.
Social distancing is particularly critical in education, but putting shutting schools and colleges down completely isn't the ideal solution. To tackle this, courses are shifting online, with apps and video conferencing tools helping classes continue to function remotely.
Video conferencing tool Zoom recently announced that it is offering its services to public K-12 schools in a handful of affected countries for free. Similar steps are being taken by Kahoot, Scholastic abroad.
In India as well, platforms such as Vedantu, Toppr, and Byjus are offering free online courses to keep students occupied at home. The pandemic represents a massive opportunity for ed-tech to step up and show how it can keep education functions flowing even when participants are remotely located.
At the same time, it's important to remember — particularly in a country like India — that not all students have access to the Internet and smart devices. It's going to be challenging to make sure that no child gets left behind, and even as virtual classrooms gain steam, we should not lose sight of the marginalises people in our society.
Various other companies are making it easier to avoid going out in unique ways, or keeping productivity high digitally. OnePlus is offering doorstep repairs for its devices, while various food delivery platforms including Swiggy, Zomato, McDonalds, and Dominos have introduced ‘contactless' deliveries.
Korg and Moog are enabling musicians to continue working even away from their equipment by making their synthesiser apps for iOS and Android free for a limited time. Adobe too is enabling students to access its Creative Cloud apps amidst closures, to allow them to keep learning and working on apps that are typically only accessed on university campuses.
Finally, we address a core bodily function, and how Coronavirus is changing things. Although toilet paper hoarding isn't a huge problem in India because of the way things are done here, it's affecting people in the West significantly. Incredibly enough, buyers are turning to the good old bidet spray as a way to keep clean, with sales going up in markets such as North America, where its adoption has typically been limited.
In conclusion, the Coronavirus outbreak could change the way we as a society operate; the social aspects of our lives could change significantly even after the threat of COVID-19 is dealt with, with technology playing a huge part in the future.
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