Though the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed waves of devastation throughout the world, it hasn’t come without silver linings. One such silver lining is the accelerated pace of digitization across the world, including Nepal. And, it is information and communication technology (ICT) that has breathed new life into the digitization.
In today’s globalized society, social structures are generally made up of information networks powered by ICT, which include internet, media platforms, networks, phones, apps, databases, as well as underlying infrastructure supporting all of them. The use of ICT has grown to such extent that it literally underpins every aspect of human endeavor – education, health, transportation, communication and now maintaining order during pandemic. Their importance goes much beyond identifying, tracing, understanding, managing, treating, and perceiving pandemic. The pandemic has left an indelible impact on our consciousness like few other epochal events have done before, ushering in a new era for the mankind. On the one hand, it has accelerated some changes that were already underway before its outbreak; on the other, it has changed some things for good.
One of the most visible changes is seen and felt in the workplaces. Virtually all companies have now recalibrated their offices to meet the challenges presented by the pandemic. Amid the upheavals, Zoom meeting, a virtual meeting platform enabling all participants to come together for a meeting regardless of their locations, has stolen the limelight. The platform has enjoyed such a huge popularity that the word “Zoom” has now become a verb. And it’s quite fair to say that it a lasting legacy of the pandemic. Because of the flexibility and convenience it offers, virtual meetings like Zoom are here to stay, whether we like it or not.
In the same vein, the pandemic has made it clear that digitization is now not a luxury, but a necessity. The government has done a commendable job of expanding the use and scope of ICT, making a remarkable progress. Every government-provided service from agriculture to healthcare to making property-related deals has moved online, meaning that each such process requires all service seekers to mandatorily use ICT. That’s no small feat and has far-reaching consequences. For one, it prevents crowding in and around the government offices, effectively reining in the spread of the virus. Another is it has made the entire transaction procedure transparent, making it harder for malpractices to thrive, including taking bribes. Education is another sector where the use of ICT has brought many rewards. At a time when the pandemic and the subsequent restrictions were keeping teachers and students alike out of schools, threatening to annul all the educational gains, ICT came to its rescue. Soon after the outbreak, great many schools adopted virtual teaching-learning method, keeping engaged both teachers and students and saving a great deal of time and resources in the process.
That said, digital divide persists. On the one side, there is a section of population that has it all, but on the other, another section has little or nothing at all. A majority of the country’s population dwells in rural areas, where neither the schools nor the pupils have inadequate or no access to any means of ICT. That has deprived them of a chance to get even a rudimentary education – let alone a decent education. Until a few months ago, we used to hear several mothers complaining that a lack of smartphone or the internet access has kept their wards from attending virtual classes. For such guardians and students, virtual teaching-learning activity means nothing. To our surprise, such conditions are even common among several schools in the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley. Health care is another sector that has benefitted hugely from the adoption of ICT. Doctors and patients, using a variety of software and hardware tools, can communicate seamlessly with each other. During the height of the pandemic, there was a time when visiting a doctor in a hospital entailed risk of getting infected with the virus, virtual communication kept that fear at bay.
ICT is much more than a mere technology; it is also a productivity enhancing tool. And countless professionals use it to excel in their professions. The pandemic has changed the future of the work for the better, in major part because digitization has upended the old order. According to The Economist, remote working is easing the bottleneck of expensive housing in thriving cities, and home-workers report higher levels of happiness and productivity.
What’s more, the pandemic also came as a boon for e-commerce, which is a business of buying and selling goods and service online. E-commerce has created new jobs suited for post-pandemic era. Ride-hailing services are yet another applications of digital technology that has not only lowered the cost of hiring a vehicle but also increased the demand for delivery drivers, opening the doors of self-employment for many and allowing the businesses to switch their operations from high-cost city centres to low-cost relatively remote locations. This has eased the traffic gridlocks in the downtown areas and provided new lease of life to far-flung places.
One more thing is becoming absolutely clear: As more and more people commute less to and from their office, not only will the air pollution reduce, we’ll be importing less fuel, whose price has been rising by leaps and bounds of late. Consuming less fuel also means lessening our contribution to climate change.
The pandemic has shone the bright light on the importance of ICT and its potential to transform lives and the world. Its miraculous ability to deliver service without needing to solicit it in physical presence is what makes it all-encompassing. That effectively prevents crowding and paves way for implementing social distancing measure, among other pandemic-related norms. If adopted widely, the technology also has a potential to catapult the economic growth to new heights. To make this happen, the government has a responsibility to close the gap of digital divide. There are many undeserved areas awaiting the adoption of the technology. Turning our gaze towards those areas to promote and expand the technology there should feature prominently among the top priorities of the government, which in turn can serve our national vision ‘Happy Nepali, Prosperous Nepal’ well.