What Coronavirus Reveals About Our Digital Way of Life in 2020

What Coronavirus Reveals About Our Digital Way of Life in 2020

What you need to know

Despite technological advances, we are not smarter now than we were during the 2003 SARS epidemic.

Thanks to social media, numerous reports, statistics, photos, videos, rumors, and wisecrack memes of the coronavirus pandemic have been unfolding around the world. Technocrats claim we have greater access to information, underscoring how our digital world has enabled remote work and other telecommuting solutions. 

But if we look beneath the surface of the technology that has made the world a more connected place, we see a public that still has no idea who to trust or where to look for accurate information. Despite technological advances, we are not smarter now than we were during the 2003 SARS epidemic.

On social media, I have seen panic buying of face masks, arguments about the best way to avoid contracting the virus, videos of Asians being harassed. I have seen people offering help and reporting from dangerous environments, horrified and uneasy.

When scholars look back on the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, the way our digital infrastructure affects everything from information exchange to human behaviors will be apparent. While panic and racism will be categorized as innate human behaviors, the details of how and why such phenomena occur today will be seen as defining characteristics of our new digital society.

Rumors and fake news seem to accompany every large-scale event, but additional schemes of internet manipulation also manifest themselves as price-gouging on Amazon. Although Amazon has started barring vendors from taking advantage of panic-stricken online shoppers, banning each one case-by-case only leads to a Sisyphean game of whack-a-mole. 

Even if Amazon successfully polices its online marketplaces, unfounded rumors of face masks and toilet paper being made from the same raw materials pit hoarders against each other at their local supermarkets. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration posted cryptic messages of a "medical supply chain shortage" without specifying what items are disrupted, only causing more people to panic. 

Striking the balance between transparency and public information proves to be a challenge for governments despite modern tools and technology. China, for example, is using QR codes to monitor and enforce each individual's status and location. In contrast, Taiwan's government has valued government transparency over violations of individual privacy, using technology to communicate the latest updates and help individuals access the supplies and healthcare that they need.

Our new global economy was never designed to deal with such epidemics and supply chain disruptions. Digital communications have enabled industrial processes such as manufacturing and assembly of goods to span the globe, increasing dependence on the continuous stability of global trade and commerce. Today, China makes up a much larger part of the world economy than it did during SARS, making travel restrictions an insufficient solution to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Comparing the current coronavirus to the SARS epidemic of 2003, markets are reacting more to today's coronavirus than they did to SARS. Economists seem to agree that we may have more to lose in 2020 from coronavirus than we did in 2003. Industries such as retail, tourism, oil, etc are revising their revenue projections as a result of coronavirus.

SP500
The differing market responses in the S&P 500 Index during the 2002 SARS outbreak and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Federal Reserve has attempted to pacify market anxiety by reducing interest rates. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed’s chairman, conceded that “a rate cut cannot reduce the rate of infection, it won’t fix a broken supply chain.” The coronavirus crisis reveals the fundamental flaw in having a fragile global supply chain that’s dependent on China alone. 

As the virus spreads outside of China, Western economies are not faring any better. The gig economy put in place by Silicon Valley, now adopted around the world, stratifies a class of workers who cannot afford to take time off. Due to the increasing number of people working from home, the demand for such services has skyrocketed. What happens then, when an Amazon contractor catches the coronavirus? Or when our very own healthcare workers are unable to get care themselves?

On the flip side, coronavirus is forcing us to rethink how to better use our digital tools and global networks in times of crisis. We are learning how to use social media responsibly to help others feel empowered instead of helpless. People are paying more attention to local news, checking in on the people around them, and looking to local representatives for guidance.

With access to more information, we are being more aware of the people and institutions that keep our cities running. We’re more willing to donate time and money for communities in need, to call out racism when we see it, and to wash our hands regularly. Even though we may be minimizing physical contact for the next few months, our digital communities are teaching us new ways to be responsible citizens.


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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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