Is Coronavirus Bringing the Virtual World Even Closer to Reality?

A quarter of the world’s population is under lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. It has pushed hundreds of millions of people to go online for communications and entertainment as digital technology-based communication has emerged as the most viable alternative to the physical equivalent.

The New York Times reported, stuck at and working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans have been spending more time online. As a consequence, total internet hits have surged by 50-70% and streaming has also jumped by at least 12%, a Forbes report found. Vodafone’s internet usage has surged by up to 50% in some European countries.

Like everywhere else, a majority of the Bangladeshis, particularly in urban areas, have been maintaining social distancing and staying at home for more than a month to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Because of social distancing and the shift to online applications, services, and tools, internet usage and data traffic suddenly increased. According to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), the number of information and communication technology (ICT) users has been growing at a higher rate for the last two months. The use of Robi’s internet data rose by 21% during the time of shut down, as per an official source.

And the internet use is increasing at a faster rate as most of the urban educated, middle- and upper-class population are working from home and using the internet for work, socialisation, and entertainment. They have increased the use of streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, and Facebook. Additionally, the use of digital communication platforms, such as Google Meet, Hangout, Zoom, and Skype, has skyrocketed among these people for conducting official meetings and conferences and for maintaining personal relationships. Different events are also being organised online, like online advice and discussion programs, online yoga classes, online fun and entertainment programs, and online chatting. For instance, webinars on mental health for young people are organised by the UN’s Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. People are joining these events from different parts of the world and sharing their experiences of and coping strategies for the COVID-19 crisis. These novel types of online social activities are also creating new kinds of social solidarity.

Globally, organisations are depending on ICT and allowing their staff to work from home. Gartner, a leading research and advisory company, conducted a survey with 800 global HR executives on March 17 and found that 88% of organisations have encouraged employees to work from home. Facebook, Google, and Amazon have implemented working from home policies for many of their employees around the globe. Twitter has made working from home mandatory for all workers globally.

In Bangladesh, all non-essential staff out of a total 2,000 employees of BRAC head office are working from home. Telecom companies, like Grameenphone, Robi, Banglalink, and consumer goods companies, like Nestle, have asked their staff to work from home.

And because of this technological privilege in the time of global crisis, people are feeling that they are also contributing through their work to fight the pandemic.

Like millions of professionals in Bangladesh, currently, I am also working from home and have got an opportunity to become a part of a research about the experience of adolescent slum residents in Dhaka during the crisis. This research is a part of Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE), a nine-year (2015-2024) research study. For me, it is a new kind of experience. I am familiar with traditional anthropological research methodology—in-person participant observation techniques, for example. For the first time, I am using digital communications for my anthropological research.

Like my work, my personal communication is also now completely dependent on ICT. I am connecting with my friends, relatives, and colleagues through technology. The new, virtual connectivity is helping me cope with the crisis and have a normal life.

Social media, like Facebook, Instagram, are very popular in Bangladesh, where people express their opinion and views. Now, most of the social media posts are carrying people’s views, hope, and stress about this Corona crisis. Sometimes those posts are also a reaction to the government’s actions on COVID-19.

We can say that even in Bangladesh ICT has, at least to some extent, replaced the social spaces are with virtual spaces, which is also helping people to maintain social distance, while maintaining their livelihoods.

But it is helping only a particular social class to maintain social distance without disconnecting with others. But poor and marginal people cannot work from home and as a consequence, experienced a 70% drop in income because of the lockdown, according to BIGD’s recent survey on Livelihoods, Coping, and Support during COVID-19 Crisis. Government help is not sufficient and the relief distribution mechanism is not systematic.

A large number of marginal people do not have direct access to ICT. BIGD’s recent national rural survey on Digital Literacy shows that almost 30% of rural mobile phone users cannot read SMS. In this context, a large number of people in our country are outside the radar of COIVD-19 communication. Thus, people connected with the pre-existing digital ecosystem is digitally resilient and can cope with the emergence like COVID-19 pandemic, while people without such infrastructure and connectivity become more vulnerable. They face connectivity and capacity limitations at the same time.

A combination of virtual and physical measures needs to be considered to include this group of people with the ICT-based coping mechanism during this global pandemic. The government and responsible authorities need to work to include the poor and vulnerable with ICT-based services. Digital financial inclusion can be used to help the poor and the vulnerable. Online financial services can be used to provide emergency aid support which will reduce middleman interference and this can really shape the support mechanism which will be suited to their needs and help them cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taslima Akhter is a Research Associate at BIGD.