Today alone, I had 6 meetings using video conferencing. They ranged from approximately 15 minutes with the longest one being about an hour and a half. Between all 6, I used 3 different services to join or host the meetings.
This is the new normal in my humble opinion - i.e. it will be acceptable to host most meetings online and to a certain extent, even some conferences and seminars. I am just glad that most people are finally finding it acceptable and realizing that it is normal (and more productive) to conduct meetings this way.
However, having said that, this new normal that I speak is not possible for the majority of Africans. Frankly, it is near impossible for most to work remotely or even conduct a big part of their lives in physical isolation.
The rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has caught many African governments off-guard, and not surprisingly, South Africa seems to be caught flat-footed if you have been following what has been happening in the country. Sure, the President announced a lockdown and advised everyone to stay home and work from home.
However, as I have been saying to everyone who cared to listen since early March 2020, everything being announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa seems targeted at the middle class that lives in the suburbs, with Internet access at home, and medical aid (health insurance) that allows them medical care at the best health facilities the country has to offer.
For the majority of South Africans (considering also that 29% of South Africans of working age are unemployed) the idea of working from home is not even a consideration. Even those that are knowledge workers who live in townships will find that in most townships no fiber infrastructure exists and as such, they have to rely on mobile Internet access, which is expensive. For the rest, their work involves manual labor and as such, staying home means typically the likelihood of no income, and as I mentioned earlier, this is where governments like South Africa’s have been caught flat-footed because any efforts and laws being put in place to keep people at home mean little unless the state pays people to stay home.
Otherwise, they will get agitated once they run out of money to buy basic supplies.
However, I digress. I wanted to focus on the new normal in Africa.
One advantage, if I can call it that, we have across Africa s the proliferation of mobile phones. Even for people who are considered low-income earners, a mobile phone is common and already many activities of daily life are facilitated on it.
Given this proliferation of mobile phones, African governments could easily be alleviating some of the crowding we have witnessed at shops in South Africa when the lockdown was announced, especially in townships. For example, when it comes to food, with a contagious disease such as COVID-19 food distribution should be managed centrally and distributed accordingly instead of risking people catching the disease at their local grocer. Mobile phones come into play where government could systematically organise the drop-off or collection of food parcels in a manner that avoids crowding by using mobile phone location data to estimate each areas needs and arrange for pick-ups and drop-offs.
Such mobile phone location data can also be useful in anticipating the health care needs of any community should the disease spread widely in their area as they would be able to relatively estimate the areas density in terms of living arrangements (and seeing the potential for the virus to spread). Such data allows for better planning.
Such mobile phone location data can also be useful in anticipating the health care needs of any community should the disease spread widely in their area as they would be able to relatively estimate the area’s density in terms of living arrangements (and seeing the potential for the virus to spread). Such data allows for better planning.
However, this and any other “fantasies” about a new world of remote work and other decentralized ways of living are all pipe dreams. As we are slowly realizing in South Africa, all these things need a country with good infrastructure (by government) and cash reserves for social relief programmes in case of emergencies.
Either way you look at it, it’s the end of the world as we know it.
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