The coronavirus disease, Covid-19, has ravaged the world. As of this writing, there have been 20.6 million cases of the disease registered and three quarters of a million people have died from it. Almost every one of the 195 countries in the world has seen cases.
The US, the world’s largest economy and also its most powerful country, has been laid low by the disease, with around 5.2 million cases and around 167,000 deaths. India has thus far seen 2.4 million cases and around 47,000 deaths.
The disease has forced countries to lock down, transport networks to collapse, and people to work or study from the relative safety of their homes. Economies have been roiled — the global economy is expected to contract by around 5% this year according to IMF. India, too, is expected to see its economy contract by at least that much (although most experts believe that the contraction could be sharper here).
The way we live and the way we work (and the way we party and play, if anyone is in the mood for those) has changed. Yet, life and work, have gone on — and for that, we must thank the internet. Purists may count the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic of 2002-2003 as the first epidemic of the Information Age. There were just around 700 million internet users back then, and broadband was still a novelty (relatively), and social media, e-books (in any significant way; the Kindle was launched only in 2007) and OTT platforms were yet to make an appearance. And so, this writer would like to think that Covid-19 is the first pandemic of the Information Age — and thank God for that (the internet, not the pandemic).
Tomorrow (Saturday, August 15) marks the 25th anniversary of the then state-owned Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd’s (VSNL) launch of internet services (for the public) , offering the tearaway speed of 9.6 kbps for ~15,000 (for 250 hours of internet access a year). All such access was through a dial-up modem, the sound of which is embossed on my auditory nerves to an extent that no number of WhatsApp alerts can erase — beeps, bops, bloops, and screeches as one waited to go down the rabbit hole.
The internet (even this newsroom only recently stopped capitalising it) has made Covid-19 bearable. It has allowed people to work remotely. It has allowed students to learn remotely. It has allowed consumers to shop remotely (something they were already doing, though these past few months have probably helped the whole internet economy leapfrog years into the future). Meanwhile, the popularity of social media had already familiarised us with virtual networks of family, friends, even strangers with shared interests. Even those in enforced quarantine and self-isolation have been able to inhabit the same virtual universe as their connections.
The internet has also made it easier to manage the pandemic. At a very basic level, the latest research on Covid-19, and the most recent discovery on therapies, is immediately available to health care workers around the world. At a slightly more involved level, the internet has made telemedicine a reality. And, at the most controversial level, contact tracing apps have the ability to show who is safe and who isn’t.
The fact that the internet has established its centrality in just about every aspect of life during the pandemic, and the fact that the internet economy has jumped ahead in time to where it may have been in 2030, however, poses two very significant challenges that are worth repeating on the 25th anniversary of the internet in India.
The first is the digital divide, which, despite its cliche-ridden usage, is a reality, and has been sharply felt over the past few months, increasing the distance between the (digital) haves and the have-nots. The second is the need for an overarching privacy and data protection law that allows people to benefit from the good the internet can do (and it can do a lot of that), without having themselves or their data exploited.
Source- Hindustan Times.0