Remaining socially connected or in close contact through digital means is critical to our sanity, safety, and to keep the economy going, says Professor Louis Fourie, who  is a futurist and technology strategist. Photo: Reuters
Remaining socially connected or in close contact through digital means is critical to our sanity, safety, and to keep the economy going, says Professor Louis Fourie, who is a futurist and technology strategist. Photo: Reuters

Tech News: Social connectedness during the Covid-19 lockdown

By Louis Fourie Time of article published May 5, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - It is our fifth week of lockdown and we all know too well how Covid-19 has disrupted the traditional ways of living, working and studying. 

The phrase that is ingrained in our memories and will probably become the winning phrase of 2020, is “social distancing.”  

But I wonder if this phrase is not an unfortunate choice, since what we really mean is “physical distancing” from other people. In fact, remaining socially connected or in close contact through digital means is critical to our sanity, safety, and to keep the economy going. 

Even though government is easing up the lockdown and re-opening the economy from the May 1, it seems that only about 1.5 million workers would be able to return to work. And only grades 12 and 7 would return to school. The majority of South Africans will still have to work and study from home – a situation that will probably continue for many more weeks until we reach level one of the government risk plan.

This is why the telecommunication companies play such a crucial role in these trying times. They provide the critical infrastructure that enables social connectivity in a world of compulsory physical distancing. And it is not just about keeping the infrastructure running, but also assisting the vast majority of users who are on prepaid plans, or have lost their income, to stay in contact with one another and the outside world.

Since it is of the utmost importance for school children and university students that online education continues during the lockdown period, the mobile operators in South Africa decided to continue with zero-rated data costs when pre-approved educational programmes are accessed online - an initiative that started during the time of the notorious fees-must-fall campaign. 

Vodacom has also significantly increased its server capacity to ensure that its e-School is available to all of its subscribers. The e-School platform offers learning material for grade R to 12 in all eleven official languages of South Africa, such as assignments, quizzes and educational videos. All the material is fully aligned with the CAPS curriculum. 

In similar fashion MTN also offers a digital education support programme for school learners and zero-rated more than one hundred educational websites, which include many websites of South African academic institutions. 

The Western Cape Education Department launched an ePortal which features 8 200 free resources, consisting of video clips, audio clips, digital documents, lessons and lesson plans to assist children who now have to study from home. 

Due to huge number of people accessing the Internet from home, the mobile operators had to struggle to make additional bandwidth available to ease the Internet congestion. One of the main factors contributing to the bandwidth congestion is the popularity of the streaming of videos and movies. During the lockdown period a record number of people signed up with entertainment companies like Netflix or ShowMax and were watching bandwidth gobbling movies or YouTube videos on a daily basis.

To reduce the congestion, to ensure good quality of broadband services, and to lower the cost to consumers, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) temporarily issued new spectrum or frequencies. This indeed eased the burden of regulatory compliance for the telecommunications sector and addressed the congested bandwidth problem. 

Sadly, the call of Icasa on telecom companies in South Africa to lower their data costs during the lockdown to ensure productivity of people working from home, fell on deaf ears.  
Internet connectivity has become a lifeline for the huge number of employees working from home during lockdown and is an important way to curb the spread of the deadly virus. 

Unfortunately the telecommunication companies did little to ease the burden of South Africa’s citizens in isolation. Instead of lowering the fees, especially for the poorest of the poor using pre-paid services, they merely complained about the massive decline in revenue of 3-5 percent and the huge roaming losses of billions of rand due to a decrease in the number of tourists during the Covid-19 lockdown.

None of the telecommunication companies in South Africa solved the core problem of connectivity, namely exorbitant data costs in South Africa. Vodacom and MTN, for instance, did lower its fees from the first of April, but not to assist people in isolation, but only after a settlement with the Competition Commission to cut the cost of data bundles with 30percent.

Fortunately, many other organisations have gone the proverbial second mile to ensure connectivity and social closeness in a time of physical distance. Although not much, DStv for instance opened up eight 24-hour news channels in response to Covid-19. Households that are not subscribers can now access the BBC, CNN, Sky News, Aljazeera, Euronews,  Newzroom Afrika, and SABC News at no cost.

Another group that stepped up to bring people together in the time of physical distancing are the musicians. Suddenly there is a plethora of virtual choirs and orchestras and we are able to listen to Andrea Bocelli singing in the famous Duomo in Milan; Keith Urban, while his wife, Nicole Kidman, is dancing; the cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 dedicated to health care workers; and closer to home the Libertas Choir singing Hot Gates; and many more. Some musicians even have daily live streams from their homes. 

The Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Berlin Philharmonic are live streaming famous operas such as Donizetti’s La Fille du Dessay and Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.  

Many others are streaming their performances such as the Cape Town, Johannesburg and Kwazulu Natal Philharmonic Orchestras; Wigmore Hall; the Bavarian and Vienna State Operas; the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, to name only a few.

But bringing people together is not limited to music alone. Google Arts and Culture has a massive archive of more than 500 museums and galleries that can be visited for free - from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, the British Museum of London and the Guggenheim Museum in New York to Seoul’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. 

And all of the above is for free from the comfort and safety of your home. But, there is one caveat and that is if you can afford the data and have access to the Internet. This is why it is so important that educational content is zero-rated so that disadvantaged students can get free and fair access to e-learning opportunities. 

But the South African telecommunication companies will have to go much further to ensure that people are not excluded from social connectivity due to exorbitant data costs. 

Despite the April cuts in the cost of data, social connectedness and inclusion in South Africa is unfortunately still prejudiced towards the poor in isolation.

We will all need to do a great deal more to build a sense of community and solidarity in this challenging time of physical distancing.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist.

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