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The world’s reaction to the first pandemic of the digital era, by Chad Gaffield

"It is imperative that knowledge about the past provides a foundation for decisions today."

Tags: 'Chad Gaffield' 'Digital technology' 'Digital transformation'


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Chad Gaffield is a Canadian historian. He is the University Research Chair Professor in Digital Scholarship at University of Ottawa and also a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, which he also presided over.

Since the mainframe era of the 1970s, Chad Gaffield has contributed to the development of digitally-enabled historical research, teaching, and public engagement.

His is a privileged vision of the social changes generated by computers: "I develop and use digital technologies to expand, deepen, and facilitate the study of topics related to socio-cultural, economic and demographic change."

Can we say Covid19 is the first global pandemic in the digital age?

COVID19 is the first pandemic in the era of widespread mobile-device-supported social media, Big Data and AI that characterize the digital world today. These digital technologies help enable the implementation of physical distancing policies throughout the private, public and non-profit sectors in unprecedented ways. 

While the widespread use of computer technology including in medicine and schools began in the 1950s and 1960s, only in recent years has the possibility of a near-complete reliance on virtual capacity become a realistic option. In this sense, COVID19 is indeed the first global pandemic in the digital age.


What's been new about the world's response and which has been the role of technology?

While there is a long history to the current use of technologies such as masks and to policies such as social distancing, societies around the world have responded to COVID19 by exploiting digital capacity to an unprecedented extent. 

The general difficulty is that digital technologies offer both unprecedented opportunities and challenges that do not fit well with many twentieth-century policies and practices. Despite rapid technological achievements over the decades, no one anticipated an emergency need to rely on virtual capacity in the absence of any physical contact in a society. 

As we are now realizing, fulfilling this need appears more complex all the time especially in health, education, and welfare. In other words, the world’s response to COVID 19 has often been digitally-enabled but necessarily implemented on an emergency basis in the absence of adequate research and reflection on how best to do so.

Are there any downsides to how technology is being used to combat the pandemic?

The history of computing shows that digital technologies can rapidly multiply and heighten both the positive and negative societal consequences of human actions. While enthusiasts promote digital technologies as social levelers, the past half-century reveals that they often accelerate and deepen familiar inequalities.

The World Social Science Report for 2016 concluded that “The world is converging around high levels of inequalities.”  In 2019, the International Science Council warned that “we risk deepening digital divides, potentially increasing inequalities and concentrating power in the hands of the technologically advanced, with knock-on consequences for sustainable development, for effective democracies and for civil rights.” 

One example of the urgent need to improve the use of technology to support vulnerable populations is the impact of COVID19 in Long Term Care (LTC) facilities. As Carole Estabrooks, Colleen M. Flood and Sharon Straus emphasize in their recent report, every effort must be made to improve current policies and practices including social distancing requirements. 

They insist that “response plans for LTC homes must include measures so that technology and other means are fully employed to connect residents with family and friends” especially since such social connectedness enhances health outcomes.

In spite of the many technological advances we now enjoy, are there any common patterns between the current and former pandemics?

Previous pandemics teach two important lessons that are highly relevant today. First, we must prepare for pandemics since they will happen again. Today, this preparation must include a robust plan to go completely or primarily virtual on short notice in order to support physical distancing policies.

Second, pandemics characteristically have a differential impact within and across societies. While mortality rates across jurisdictions have rarely been identical, the overall pattern makes clear that previously vulnerable populations are at even greater risk of life-threatening infection. This historic pattern takes on increased importance in the Digital Age. 

In your field of research, what lessons can we learn from the current pandemic?

Despite using digital technologies since the 1970s to study socio-demographic change, and giving university courses on topics like the history of disasters and the making of the Digital Age, I had never imagined a need to combine society-wide physical distancing with emergency virtual connectedness.

This urgency emphasizes the importance of thinking through the history of both pandemics and digital technologies to help make timely decisions that anticipate and avoid familiar negative consequences.

COVID-19 is, like previous pandemics, starkly exposing societal fault lines. Contagious diseases can affect everyone but they do so in different ways according to individual circumstances. The usual pattern is a greater negative impact on populations that are already vulnerable for other reasons including poverty and prejudice. Recent studies of the 1918 Flu such as by RSC Task Force member, Esyllt Jones, consistently emphasize the complex relationship between the pandemic’s consequences and social differences. The common result around the world was that the poor had the highest pandemic mortality as a result of greater residential density, inferior nutrition, and other disadvantages.

Similar complex patterns are now emerging in real-time for COVID-19 and it is imperative that knowledge about the past provides a foundation for decisions today.

Are social inequalities the biggest virus spreaders worldwide?

As now evident in Canada as elsewhere, the frequent COVID 19 outbreaks among today’s unprecedentedly large elderly cohort highlight the importance of paying special attention to vulnerable groups especially those living in close quarters such as in long-term care facilities or dense urban housing. 

In emphasizing the world’s one billion people living in slums, The New York Times wrote on April 8, 2020, that “The most important factor in enabling the spread of pandemics in slums is the neglect of these marginalized populations by governing elites.”

Reports have been increasingly emphasizing the added risk of infection for visible minorities living in poor neighbourhoods. By April 6, 2020, the Associated Press was already noting that “Chicago’s rate of coronavirus deaths, illness among Black residents alarms U.S. cities.” Public health experts were not surprised given the “decades-old barriers to health care in the geographically divided city” where those in the south and west sides have “poorer access to health care, higher poverty rates and jobs that require them to keep showing up while others are able to work from home.”

In Norway, Dr. Svenn-Erik Mamelund who specializes in the demography of epidemic diseases lamented in 2018 that “social inequalities in pandemic outcomes do not form part of the discussion in international preparedness plans for pandemic influenza.”

In the present time, is technology narrowing or deepening social inequalities?

The challenge of combining digital connectedness, physical distancing, and social equity requires urgent attention. For example, schools are now struggling to optimize digitally-enabled approaches that suit all students. In light of the modest academic results of broadcast-style on-line learning, educators have been developing innovative hybrid interactive curricula that aim to integrate the best of virtual and physical resources to suit diverse students. 

In the current emergency period, special efforts must be made to ensure that digitally-revised courses are accessible to all especially for those who had been relying on school computer facilities. The history of technology suggests that the materially-secure families of knowledge workers have clear advantages that may increase as communities confront COVID-19.

Overall, the historic pattern in which pandemics have a socially differential impact within societies will continue and worsen without special attention to digital divides in confronting COVID-19. 

Moreover, we must learn as much as possible now to enhance policies and practices for the inevitable next time that successful physical distancing depends on exclusive digitally-enabled social connectedness. In so doing, we should also be able to develop more equitable ways to integrate virtual and physical presence in the pursuit of healthier, resilient societies.