We were not prepared for COVID-19. The Coronavirus epidemic has thrown the world into chaos, showing us just how under-prepared we were for an outbreak on this scale. Apart from the impact on struggling healthcare systems, COVID-19 is affecting schools, businesses and many other areas of society, as cities grind to a halt.
There are clearly lessons to be learned. But if there’s a silver lining, perhaps it’s this - COVID-19 is a wake-up call to the world, proof that we need to change the way we live, study and work. If we had already woken up to the potential of technology, the virus wouldn’t have had such a debilitating, disruptive effect on our daily lives.
From the home office to online voting, let’s take a look at how we could do things differently.
Working from home
With a wealth of technological tools at our disposal, from Google Drive to video calls, working from home has never been easier. According to Global Workplace Analytics, the number of people working from home has increased by 140% since 2005, and that upward trend is likely to continue.
There are countless advantages for workers and businesses. Working remotely decreases stress, allowing for a healthier lifestyle in terms of diet and exercise. The average American spends 225 hours - nine days - commuting to work every year. When a worker makes the switch to working from home, it leads to a dramatic increase in quality of life. No more time wasted in traffic or on public transport means that we can sleep more, exercise more, eat better, and generally enjoy our lives.
Happier workers means increased productivity, and benefits for businesses. In 2015, telecommuting saved employers $44 billion. If employers don’t have to provide a physical working space for their workers, that reduces overhead expenses significantly.
Then there’s the environmental argument. Fewer people travelling to work obviously means a huge reduction in greenhouse emissions. As younger generations are becoming increasingly engaged in environmental issues and concerned about their impact on the world, this will probably be one of the main reasons for a mass move to homeworking.
So, what are the drawbacks? Personal preference is one - some people simply prefer working in an office environment, where they might work more productively and enjoy being able to brainstorm and troubleshoot with colleagues. However, gradually getting people used to working from home - starting from just one day a week - could be the solution, along with advances in technology. When computers first allowed people to work from home, it probably felt lonely at times, but with video calls homeworking can feel much more interactive and social.
Some employers might be worried about monitoring work, but again, technology means that this is essentially a non-issue. There are so many ways to manage remote employees, from setting deadlines to using various communication tools.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, many workers across the world are being encouraged to work from home where possible. Although this is not an option for every job, the potential for remote working should be exploited to the full. If there were ever a time to log in at home instead of taking the train to the office, this is it.
Physical schools and universities are unlikely to ever disappear completely, and some would argue that the social interaction of the classroom is irreplaceable. Thinking about learning more widely, however, a different picture emerges. The international e-learning market is projected to be worth $325 billion by 2025.
Studying online has many similar advantages and disadvantages to working from home - flexible and better for the environment, but with lack of interactivity as a significant drawback. Motivation could also be more of an issue, as students (particularly children and young teenagers) may find it hard to focus on their own. A student who has difficulty concentrating in a conventional classroom is likely to be even more distracted and prone to procrastination when working from home.
However, for many students e-learning could be ideal. It’s convenient, saves time, and allows resources to be easily shared. Virtual classrooms are becoming increasingly popular, with higher quality video and more opportunities for interaction. If teachers are open to adapting and using technology creatively, students will benefit accordingly. They may even find the lessons more stimulating, and be more motivated to create their own study paths, according to their interests.
Finally, e-learning has clear advantages in the case of forced school closures. Whether the school is closed because of extreme weather conditions or an outbreak such as COVID-19, there’s no need to interrupt the curriculum. The e-learning company Outschool has been working with schools to offer free online classes - just one of many organizations finding innovative solutions.
Say “Amazon” to virtually anyone, and they’ll think of the e-commerce giant before they remember the existence of the rainforest. We’re all online shopping converts now. This year, e-commerce sales are predicted to account for 15.5% of all retail sales. Even if we boycott Amazon or prefer to buy certain things from physical shops in order to try before we buy, most of us regularly make online purchases. All it takes is a few clicks to buy just about anything from anywhere, often at a lower cost.
While e-commerce has been much more readily accepted than working or studying online, some people are still wary. There are valid concerns about online security, including privacy and fraud issues. One of the reasons that Amazon has been so phenomenally successful in comparison to other online retailers is that people trust the website. It’s essential for e-commerce platforms to make online security a priority, investing in effective fraud prevention tools and taking advantage of the latest advances in technology to gain customers’ trust.
COVID-19 poses a real threat to shop-owners, as people living in affected countries are understandably reluctant to frequent crowded streets and shopping centres. But while consumers may be nervous, their needs and wants haven’t disappeared. Businesses with well-established websites can breathe a sigh of relief - the customers will keep coming.
E-voting and remote decision-making
With the notable exception of Estonia, where more than 43% of eligible voters vote online, e-voting has not yet become widely used - or at least not in parliamentary elections. The Iowa caucus disaster did little to reassure those with doubts about online voting, even though the issue was specific to one particular app and soon resolved.
The gradual transition to e-voting is inevitable, as developers fix glitches and use innovative technology like blockchain to create safer, easier ways to vote. Voters need to be reassured that the technology can be trusted, perhaps by doing trials on a smaller scale before taking the plunge in parliamentary elections.
The advantages of e-voting are obvious, especially in situations when access to polling stations is limited. A recent Guardian article highlighted the issue of polling station closure in Texas, making it more difficult for minorities to vote, and therefore benefitting the Republicans. Casting votes in an election - or indeed voting in person for any important decision - has been complicated by COVID-19. TIME claims that “Coronavirus is already making it harder for Americans living abroad to vote in the 2020 primaries”, and this is surely just the tip of the iceberg.
So, instead of creating special pop-up polling stations for voters in quarantine or taking more extreme measures such as wearing a gas mask, why not allow people to vote in safety and comfort from their own homes? Whether it’s a political election or making a decision in an AGM, there’s no doubt that e-voting would save a lot of stress and hassle, and prevent the virus from spreading further.
At the time of writing, it’s impossible to say what the future holds for COVID-19. But it’s realistic, not pessimistic, to predict the arrival of similar pandemics in the future. According to a World Economic Forum report, COVID-19 is “part of our interconnected viral age”. It’s the responsibility of individuals, organizations and governments to work together in order to manage such outbreaks, limiting the damage as much as possible.
The technology allowing us to work, study, shop and vote online already exists. The only real obstacle is our reluctance to use it. The reaction to technological innovation can be frustratingly slow at times, and with e-voting we’re probably still in the “early adopter” phase, according to the Diffusion of Innovations theory. So it’s just a question of the world waking up to the technology that will not only make our lives easier in general, but will also allow us to face situations such as COVID-19 with calm.