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The Internet And The COVID Pandemic: How Being Online Let Us Be 'Free' While Stuck At Home

Image for representation.

Image for representation.

People from anywhere could now attend virtual concerts, listen to their favorite authors talk, learning cooking from Gordon Ramsay. People also learned to teach, to use the Internet as a medium to spread happiness further.

More than half a year into a global pandemic, we've realized how the new normal looks and feels. Washing your hands over and over, staying indoors, and meeting your friends and family on videocalls. The new normal, however, wouldn't have existed without something which only came to India 25 years ago. The Internet. The good old Internet. The Internet, which during the pandemic, let Indians be more 'free' than ever, all while using a brightly lit-screen. Be it their phone, be it their laptop, be it their tablet or be it their smart TV, with the phone screen "casted" on it for extreme convenience. As the nation-wide lockdown started in end-March, our phones, tablets and laptops became our windows to the world. The outside world has settled. Everyone was indoors.

Virtually, we saw friends connect in ways they couldn't do physically, because of distance or time. People came up with platforms where you could connect, like watching a movie together on Netflix Watch Party, or play fun games like Pictionary with each other on Houseparty. The number of group WhatsApp video-calls shot up, replacing hanging out in offices or outside colleges or at coffee shops. Video calling and video meeting apps such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams became household names. Game downloads shot up and clocked record numbers. And broadband subscribers in India increased at the rate not seen in the last decade in India.

Showing up at a friend's house for their birthday was replaced by a super secret Google Meet or Zoom call, where the friend would be added to cries of 'surprise!' Students attending online classes replaced paper chits with Snapchat stories. This one their teachers couldn't catch and confiscate. Calling and talking to family and friends became more regular - people were saving so much time from commute and being outdoors.

Learning new things, like cooking and cleaning to be 'atma-nirbhar' couldn't have happened without the Internet. Whether it was looking for a video on YouTube to know the exact amount of ginger-garlic paste to put in food, or to call your mother or grandmother and ask which 'daal' went into your favorite recipe. The older generation, who had relied on voice-calls, slowly got used to video-calling, even when they held the phone super close to their face, they could still tell you, "You're looking so thin! You're not eating properly?"

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Ordering the exact brand of masala and multiple bottles of hand-sanitizer got easier because of the Internet. Things would come to your doorstep if you ordered it on an online portal. You wouldn't have to go out at all. Medicines, daily essentials, perishables, and even a chair that resembled your office one, all arrived from viewing, choosing, selecting and placing an order on the Internet.

With ample of free time, many people turned to creating content like never before. More YouTube channels, more TikTok (unfortunately, that isn't around at this time), more Instagram Lives, people ended up making more things than ever: DIY artworks, up-cycling something, styling outfits in their closet, and in turn, inspiring more people to create. #GharBaithoIndia and #StayHome became the biggest hashtags on social media.

But that wasn't all. So many people turned to the Internet as a way to do something they couldn't before: Reaching out to a much larger audience. People from anywhere could now attend virtual concerts, listen to their favorite authors talk, learning cooking from Gordon Ramsay. People also learned to teach, to use the Internet as a medium to spread happiness further.

The pandemic essentially pushed the entire world into a global work-from-home experiment. Some doctors could virtually counsel their patients. Psychologists and therapists were a call away. Courts moved to online hearings. If it wasn't for the Internet, none of these things would have been possible. We've evolved from the way we used the Internet 25 years ago, when it existed through a thick cable, and could only be connected through dial-up on your landline, blocking anyone from calling the phone. Internet speeds are much faster now than then, but we still get annoyed everytime a YouTube video takes longer than three seconds to load.

The Internet has become as essential as food, water, shelter for humans in the pandemic than ever before. Maslow might be surprised, but without the Internet, the pandemic would have been a lot more difficult to navigate.

Editors' Note: This article is part of the 25 Years of Internet In India series, where we try to capture how the state of mobiles, home broadband, services and content have evolved, particularly in the past few years. We try to understand what the internet means for us, be it for the new reality of work from home, for entertainment and the Netflix binge watching, music streaming, online gaming and more.