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Coronavirus pandemic will be defining moment for the Internet

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 13 Mar 2020

In the wake of the spread of the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19), the world is seeing a shift of physical events, work, classes and meetings to an online environment.

This week saw the World Health Organisation declare coronavirus a pandemic, as the disease continues to spread at alarming levels across the globe.

Since the outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December, over 130 000 coronavirus cases have been reported, with over 70 000 recoveries and almost 5 000 deaths. In SA, health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize today confirming 24 persons have tested positive for COVID-19 in the country.

With the rise in cancellation of sport, festivals, conferences and tech events, and employers worldwide asking staff to work from home due to virus fears, the Internet has become the light at the end of a dark tunnel.

Virtual moves

Big tech conferences like Google Cloud Next are moving to digital-only events. In some parts of China, schools are rolling out online classes. In Italy, which has recorded the most cases outside China, Vatican City has decided to live-stream the Pope’s mass services.

Climate and environmental activist Greta Thunberg has called on campaigners of the Fridays for Future movement to prioritise health and safety by avoiding public rallies and taking their climate strikes online.

Dr Naledi Pandor, minister of international relations and cooperation.
Dr Naledi Pandor, minister of international relations and cooperation.

Locally, Dr Naledi Pandor, minister of international relations and cooperation, earlier this week pegged technology as a way of the future in regards to conferences and meetings.

“Where we’ve agreed with smaller meetings that we wish to proceed because of important decisions that need to be taken, the fall-back has been the use of technology. We are looking at video conferencing or other means of reaching out to each other and jointly making decisions.”

CliffCentral founder and media personality Gareth Cliff tweeted this morning: “If your business needs to communicate effectively during the #Coronavirus situation, or you planned an event and now need to cancel it, PODCASTING could be the solution you're looking for.”

The Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) says this latest outbreak of a global biological virus perfectly demonstrates the utility of the World Wide Web.

“From enabling people to self-isolate by working from home, to disseminating useful information related to handwashing and more, the Internet is proving to be a valuable weapon in the fight against COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, current developments are also helping to highlight the digital divide and this is something that is of concern to ISPA. Online collaboration and remote working requires reliable and affordable connectivity – something which is still beyond the grasp of many in peri-urban and rural areas.”

While it is worrying that a great many South Africans do not have reliable access to affordable, high-speed fixed-line communications that would enable them to self-isolate in the face of the growing COVID-19 threat, there is a ray of sunshine on the horizon in the form of firm moves towards much cheaper mobile data, the organisation says.

“The vast majority of us access the Web on our smart and feature phones, and the cheaper mobile data that’s resulting from the Competition Commission’s recent report into the mobile data market is therefore very welcome and especially opportune. ICASA’s interventions, too, are bearing fruit and the timing couldn’t be better.”

For Arthur Goldstuck, head of World Wide Worx, the rapid shift from physical to virtual events, meetings, classes and logistics dramatically highlights the importance of the Internet in overcoming physical limitations.

“As such, it is a defining moment in the history of the Internet, as it forces those who had held onto traditional modes of operation to move to a model that embraces greater efficiency, cost-effectiveness, participation and visibility.”

Moira de Roche, IITPSA non-executive director and IFIP International Professional Practice Partnership (IP3) chairperson, concurs, saying many people and companies continue to prefer face-to-face meetings, even when it is not necessary.

“Being forced to try virtual events and meetings will demonstrate that in some cases it is a viable alternative,” says De Roche. “We often stick to the traditional way of doing things because it is what we are used to; for example, to learn – I must be in a classroom with a teacher.”

De Roche says the IFIP IP3 holds all board meetings except one on an online platform.

It works well for shorter meetings, she points out. “We do have a face-to-face meeting once a year because this is still necessary to build relationships. Concentrating on a long online event can be problematic, so the design of meetings and events is key. Running an online event requires different skills.”

Arthur Goldstuck, head of World Wide Worx.
Arthur Goldstuck, head of World Wide Worx.

The spread of the disease is slowly leading to a change in corporate culture, with technology companies like SAP, Microsoft, Twitter, Square and Google, among many others, asking employees to work from home.

Goldstuck says the pandemic forces all companies to explore ways for employees to work from home, adding that businesses should already be investing in technology tools regardless of the virus.

“The initial knee-jerk reaction from much of the business world has been to close offices and send staff on enforced leave. This is not only short-sighted and fixed in the mould of 20th century management philosophy, but in fact, reveals an inability at executive level to appreciate the extent to which digitalisation has utterly changed the rules of management.

“One can blame incompetence and ignorance, but in reality it is about the comfort zone. The pandemic has exposed the extent to which organisations of any kind have been accustomed to their comfort zone, and to business as it used to be. The pandemic is forcing them out of their comfort zone, but they have not yet accepted the new reality. If it gets worse, they will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the future of work.”

Commenting on business reluctance to let employees work from home, Goldstuck says: “In many organisations, across business, government and NGOs, executives and managers still see their roles as managing people rather than having business outcomes as the priority. As a result, they need to see people at their desks or workspaces, and they need to see productivity as a very specific activity occurring in their physical presence.

“This is a consequence of both corporate culture and national culture. China and Korea are struggling massively with this issue now, paying the price of a deeply hierarchical business culture. South Africa will experience the same if we go into lockdown mode.”

Cisco Sub-Saharan Africa GM Clayton Naidoo notes the current situation creates a sense of urgency and will make many leaders rethink the role of remote working in their organisations.

“Working from home, for knowledge workers, has been an important conversation for many years, and I observe that the view is gradually shifting as digital transformation takes centre stage. At the same time, remote working is not only a question of technology; there are other important aspects, including culture, workflows and processes.

“In addition, the role of teamwork – within and across companies – is increasing. So the question is not only how technology supports individuals working remotely, but even more importantly, how does it make teams more efficient.”

But wait…

With more people expected to work from home as a result of coronavirus, ISPA says connected citizens should remember to update their anti-virus software to keep their devices running smoothly.

While the implications of biological viruses that target human respiratory systems are obvious, computer viruses cause damage because they can pass from one desktop, tablet or mobile device to another like a biological virus, impacting humans in less obvious, primarily frustrating ways, according to the association.

“Not clicking on links in unexpected e-mails would eliminate much of the risk posed by online viruses and the productivity gains would put us in a better position to face the annual flu season,” says André van der Walt, ISPA chairman.