Over the years, Information Communications Technology has completely revolutionised the world we live in. ICT impacts almost every aspect of our daily lives – from how we work and learn to how we communicate and socialise. In fact, ICT has become such an intrinsic part of modern day society that it is easy to overlook the crucial role it plays.
Locating Within Today’s Landscape
The emergence of the COVID-19 virus has completely shifted this paradigm, bringing ICT’s critical role to the forefront. The pandemic continues to have a devastating effect on all sectors of society (economic, health, education, business, social etc.) and many countries have been forced to enter a state of lockdown to curb the spread. It has become clear that ICT is the only tool capable of sustaining a lockdown of this nature. Consequently, every sector of society is relying on ICT, now more than ever, to remain afloat.
Effect on Sectors of Society
Digital health solutions have played a fundamental role in the fight against
COVID-19, with technology being used to identify, track and test the virus.
Without ICT, the COVID-19 virus may not have been identified as early as it was.
BlueDot, a Canadian start-up, was one of the first organisations to identify the
emergence of the mysterious flu-like virus in Wuhan, China. They used an
AI-driven surveillance algorithm to track the virus and give advanced warning to
government agencies, health officials, frontline hospitals and airlines, days
before the outbreak.
AI’s ability to analyse massive amounts of data to predict results on large datasets accurately is also being used in South Africa’s fight against the COVID-19 virus. Contact tracing is being used to track and trace the virus in provinces that have been most affected, and publicly accessible interactive dashboards are being used to track the number of infections, recoveries and fatalities in the country. This has greatly assisted the Government in making well-informed, data-driven decisions.
AI is also being used to identify faster and more precise testing methods.
Researchers in New York have developed an algorithm that quickly detects
COVID-19, using AI in conjunction with imaging technologies. The algorithm looks
at CT scans of the patient’s lungs, along with the patient’s symptoms and
bloodwork to quickly make a diagnosis. Not only is this method quicker and more
accurate than the current viral tests, it also solves other challenges including
the shortage of test kits and the possibility of false-negatives.
Technology has also assisted with the dissemination of up-to-date and reliable COVID-19 information – another central component in the management and mitigation of the virus. Members of society are only able to make informed decisions when they are kept informed. The South African Government achieved this with the use of WhatsApp. This well known instant messaging platform has allowed the Government to disseminate up-to-date COVID-19 information to millions of South Africans in 5 official languages.
ICT has not only played an important role in the direct fight against the COVID-19 virus but also in dealing with its after-effects. Businesses, educational institutions and everyday South Africans have turned to technology platforms to maintain some form of normalcy during the national lockdown.
The effect on the economy has been dire, with many businesses being forced to
close their doors indefinitely. ICT has become the primary enabler of economic
activity, allowing many organisations and sectors to continue operations by
means of eCommerce, online meetings and online marketing. Many organisations
have turned to BI to improve their business model and recover from the negative
effects the COVID-19 virus has had on their business. These companies are
relying on data and analytics to manage supply chain issues, develop crisis
management solutions and optimise costs and operations.
Educational institutions have also turned to ICT in an effort to salvage the academic year. Learning has been able to continue via online classes, online course material, educational apps and social media and WhatsApp groups. Who would have thought classes like physical education could be offered online? This new way of learning has also revealed how crucial IT and computer skills are. One could even argue that IT has joined the list of essential skills that everyone should possess.
ICT has also served to reduce the negative effect the national lockdown could have on mental wellbeing, by providing a platform for social interaction and entertainment. ICT has made it possible for families and friends to say connected while adhering to lockdown rules. It has also made it possible for people to access cultural and entertainment content from the confines of their own homes. Online music concerts, online church services, online book clubs and social media groups are just some of the ways people are using technology to stay connected to the outside world.
Unmasking the growing importance of ICT in today’s society has uncovered
existing challenges that South Africa’s ICT sector must overcome. The most
glaring of these is the stark digital divide which mirrors the countries
socio-economic inequality. The latest stats from Stats SA revealed that 59.3
percent of South Africans have access to the internet, with the majority
accessing it via their mobile phones. Only 9.5% of the population have an
internet connection in their household, and not surprisingly, only 2% of these
people live in rural homesteads.
The above, combined with South Africa’s exorbitant data prices and the fact that only one-third of the population have access to a smart phone, makes one thing painfully clear. The same people who are most vulnerable to the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown due to their socio-economic status, are also marginalised when it comes to affordable access to ICT infrastructure and the relief that this access brings during a lockdown of this nature.
Responsibility and Conclusions
Developing solutions to these challenges is not an easy task but it is definitely an essential one if our economy and society are to manage this crisis and future crises of this nature. It is extremely unlikely that life will return to normal anytime soon and as we grapple to come to terms with the new normal, the need for multifaceted solutions that benefit society as whole becomes apparent. ICT can no longer be seen as a privilege but must now be seen as a necessity. ICT is now synonymous with access to information, education, job opportunities and much needed social interaction. It is the responsibility of all stakeholders to come together to find a collaborative solution to today’s challenges, as well as the future challenges that await us.