Is technology is a blessing or a curse in times of Covid-19?

While all the efforts are to find the vaccine and save lives with optimal arrangements, the concomitant role of digital technologies remains a mixed blessing.

 |  5-minute read |   26-03-2020
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The 21-day lockdown has just started in India on March 25, 2020, to ensure social distancing to arrest the spread of novel coronavirus disease — Covid-19. The lockdown has coincided with the onset of the Navratri festival and will also cover the dates in which most of the Indian communities will celebrate their respective New Year day, although it would be fair to say that the celebrations will be subdued with people remaining indoors.

Meanwhile, the virus continues its surge, across continents. It is unstoppable as the yet-to-be-discovered vaccine is far from being confirmed. The pace of testing is enhanced albeit at a different level as more kits are being made available while ventilators, masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) remain low compared to the requirement. This is despite the extraordinary pursuit to ramp up production. The pandemic is one of the greatest threats to mankind that descended, proliferated and diffused in no time and has already led uncertainties across the business and other sectors.

main_technology-coro_032620020843.jpgDespite the perched and vantage position of the technology matrix, there is a subtle yet despaired viewpoint that technology has failed humans. (Representational photo: Reuters)

One of the key features of the current pandemic has been the information on digital space to deal with Covid-19 that was unavailable during the Spanish flu outbreak in 1920, the cholera epidemic in 1820 or the plague in 1720. Digital technologies along with digital platforms have covered almost every aspect of information dissemination including the treatment protocols and collaboration. While micro and nano computing powers have enhanced disease detection and dosages, social media intermediaries have become the most prolific information provider and only connecter among the humans who are quarantined in their homes amidst unconnected geographies.

Just in time, technology has helped governments and companies to take stock and devise supply protocols towards a fair distribution. To top it, artificial intelligence (AI) optimised and made all the above aspects crisper and more focused.

Despite this perched and visible position of the technology matrix, there was also a subtle yet despaired viewpoint that technology possibly has failed humans this time. The disease in its earliest weeks didn’t trigger the right alarm bell despite AI capabilities and couldn’t rise above the Chinese Whisper. The whisper was still loud enough for raising alarms at least in countries whose intelligence generate terabytes of data every day from space to under oceans. Predictability theories on AI-enhanced human knowledge have failed. The Western world that is otherwise reputed for its medical infrastructure, is suddenly caught short of readiness. Every day when human lives are being counted as numbers in terms of those infected and dying, it is a grim reality that despite the advancement in technology and predictability and progress of medical sciences, the bottom line hasn’t improved. Suddenly a deadly virus, out of an animal or a hidden lab is devastating humans with not only deaths but also social distancing of the most social animal.

The gentler few and business-minded have also discovered the expanded scope of work from home and video-conferencing to be more efficient and remain in the connected world. Their penchant for an always-present digital image is still driving much of the business ventures, obviating geographical and physical constraints.

Many ’future of work’ experts that have emerged in the last couple of years have already started patting their backs and a few of them have already started claiming that office real estate is the next casualty. The other significant and the wiser lot is betting 21 days on the spread of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar. The endless list goes to fulfil a long-cherished desire of being indoors and make best use of the subscription, oblivious of the fact that the providers are already thinking of dishing out their content in streaming speeds to reduce the burden on broadband speed.

When it comes to a platform for reaching humans across diversity and devices, the flooding with texts, photos and videos have become a major overflowing network of information that is both true and fake. These primarily push the technology mechanism through social media and have surpassed the information dissemination role to become a network of the confusing content transmitter.

So, while the sad statistics around the affected and dead are being updated, there is a constant flow of treatment ideas ranging from prophylactic medicines to cow urine dosage or even diet formulations and combinations. Millions are deciphering Covid-19’s spread and presence protocols while brilliant scientists are still caught up between their microscope sessions and peer consultations. While some say that Mother Nature is seeking her revenge, others are spreading doomsday theories, and the smarter few are predicting the end of the globalised world. Suddenly medical topics have surpassed porn as the most circulated content on the web and self-claimed regulators are claiming their success in cleansing the web and making it look so scientific and naive.

But the more worrying issue around the expanded social media reach in these times is the violation of privacy. Medical test reports (both, positive and negative) of many of those have been tested are being circulated across social media groups by random users. These include those who have no relation with the person whose reports they are posting. It became a challenge among users in the northeastern states to break the news of the first victim of Covid-19 in the region. In the melee, a four-year-old baby was also pronounced infected even before his reports reached the lab, and much before the first victim was actually tested positive in Manipur.

In yet another case, a lady was harassed despite being in quarantine, after returning from Europe more than a month ago. Needless to say, such immature and violative posting has gone a step further beyond the balm of the steps that WhatsApp announced last year to curb fake news and rampant forwards. A brazen post was also going around that in these times, the law enforcement will be less motivated in going after such violators and rumour mongers.

While all the efforts on a global footing remain to find the vaccine and save lives with the most optimal arrangements, the concomitant role of digital technologies remains a mixed blessing. So far, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Also read: How an army of data labellers are behind India's AI boom


Subimal Bhattacharjee Subimal Bhattacharjee @subimal

The author is is a globally recognised commentator on cyberspace issues and former country head of General Dynamics.

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