Pandemics today are different than what they were a few decades ago — not in terms of science but in terms of society's knowledge and handling of them.
Before the invention of television, radios and newspapers were people's only source of information. When television came along, people had to wait for the news slot to learn about world happenings. Then came the birth of the internet, digital media, technology, and smartphones ... all of which changed the course of communication and acquiring news 180 degrees. These new methods of obtaining information have allowed for an increase in awareness regarding several things in life, including global outbreaks.
The pandemic that has affected countries, economies, and people around the world in 2020 is, as all of us know, the novel coronavirus (otherwise known as COVID-19). No matter where you are in the world, this pandemic found its way to your knowledge, even if the virus hasn't struck your population as badly as others, per se. Globalization has allowed for this to happen; we're all connected in one way or the other, whether it's through our careers, our educational history, our travel archives, or simply via social media.
All you need to stay on alert these days is an internet connection, a laptop/smartphone, and minimal digital literacy. Media outlets post breaking news almost instantaneously on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram — arguably some of the most popular social media platforms today. Other news outlets even share updates on WhatsApp, a messaging platform now owned by Facebook, that has evolved from being just an intimate messaging platform for friends/family to one that caters to business people, including news outlets.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, it became clear how quickly fake news can spread in this day and age. One simple message on WhatsApp - which houses 2 billion users worldwide - can wreak havoc. In a bid to fight this, WhatsApp announced that it will impose a strict new limit on message forwarding to slow the dissemination of false news.
The way it works is as follows:
If a user receives a message that has been forwarded more than five times, they can only send it on to a single chat at a time. The measure, however, does not ensure that the message won't spread to as many people. This is because if a user is patient enough to manually forward the message several times, then it won't really limit the spread of that message.
But the company hopes that by making the process more difficult for users, it will slow down the spread of viral messages, some of which are false news.
Using user data to generate meaningful reports
While some tech giants are trying to limit the spread of false user-generated information, others are using user data to generate important reports regarding the novel coronavirus. One such company to be doing the latter is Google to see whether lockdowns and regulations in various countries are actually pushing people to stay at home to restrict the spread of the virus.
Google's report, titled COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, aims at providing "insights into what has changed in response to work from home, shelter in place, and other policies aimed at flattening the curve of this pandemic." The detailed country-by-country reports are based on aggregated, anonymized data gathered from mobile phones to map people's movement trends over a period of time. The data was collected from 131 countries worldwide, including some in the Arab region.
Facebook has also unveiled new products that aim to improve people's understanding of the disease's spread and potentially help public health organizations with their response efforts. This week, Facebook upgraded its "Data for Good" - which was initially launched in 2017 to inform academic research in various ways - to grant access to "three new maps for forecasting the disease's spread and revealing whether residents of a given region are staying at home," according to The Verge.
How tech giants have helped
You also have tech giants that donated millions towards the fight against COVID-19. Apple Inc., for example, donated $10 million towards the global novel coronavirus response, provided 20 million N95 masks to the medical community in the U.S., and has tried to limit the damage on its employees. The company has continued to pay all its hourly workers despite the fact that employees are not working their hours.
Cisco, the world leader in IT, has also invested $225 million in the fight against the novel coronavirus; a small portion of that money was in cash while the remaining $210 million is in products and resources pertaining to healthcare, education, and technology sectors. Cisco's Webex is one of its free software solutions aimed at facilitating remote work. The American University of Beirut in Lebanon has been utilizing the aforementioned software to conduct online courses amid the pandemic.
Other tools that have been of major use during this challenging period include Microsoft Teams, which prior to the pandemic was blocked in the UAE. Back in March, however, the Gulf nation's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) revealed that it has temporarily unblocked some video and voice calling applications during the quarantine period. The decision concerned applications such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Blackboard on all internet networks within the country as well as Microsoft's Skype for Business and Google Hangouts on mobile and fixed-line internet networks.
All these tools have facilitated remote work and have allowed people to stay connected with educators or colleagues alike.
The coronavirus pandemic has worked in favor of some businesses
The other side of the coin is the boom that took place regarding online delivery.
Same-day grocery delivery app Instacart, if we were to give one example, witnessed a spike in downloads during this period. In fact, iOs downloads of the app more than doubled in the week of March 8th. Amidst the surge of demand, the company reported 10 times sales growth.
The novel coronavirus outbreak pushed many people around the world to rely on online services as #StayAtHome became the most influential campaign during the outbreak. It was particularly interesting to see how the Arab world handled this, especially considering online payments took a while to gain momentum in the region as many people fear security breaches.
Two years ago, it was estimated that the volume of online payments in the Arab world will reach $69 billion by 2020; perhaps the coronavirus outbreak has allowed for those numbers to spike.
Arabs have had to rely on online services through this challenging period, a direction that could become the standard after COVID-19 wears out. Many businesses in the Gulf region have witnessed a surge in demand in online sales since COVID-19 began spreading.
Saudi Arabia's BinDawood Holding, founded in 1984, witnessed a 200-percent spike in its online sales since the escalation of COVID-19 in the kingdom; UAE's Majid Al Futtaim (MAF) Retail, the parent company of the famous hypermarket Carrefour, also saw a threefold year-on-year increase in online orders during the month of March. The company has also had to reshuffle its priorities, moving staff from certain departments to others to meet rising demand.
The global coronavirus outbreak has given tech giants room for growth and experimentation. It has also cleared the way for traditional businesses to rethink their strategies to fit the mould of the digital age.