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Physical Distancing, Social Proximity – Information and Communication Technology in Global Isolation

Image for Representation
(Source: AFP Relaxnews)

Image for Representation (Source: AFP Relaxnews)

Despite these times of crisis due to coronavirus, we have strategised newer ways to communicate through video calls, group chats, e-classes, and various other online activities.

Dr. Nabanita Sengupta
  • News18.com
  • Last Updated: April 10, 2020, 3:34 PM IST
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2018, the year of my rendezvous with Zoom meeting app. A few of us colleagues in an undergraduate degree college in Kolkata dreamed of an international webinar in the true sense, connecting experts and scholars globally – an ambitious dream for a small college with limited resources like us.

We were successful in February 2019 in organising one of the earliest, if not the first-ever, grand event by an undergraduate college in a semi-urban locality of Kolkata that simultaneously connected four other universities across India and two other local colleges with speakers from the US, Australia, Delhi, Pune, Bangalore, and, of course, Kolkata.

The best part of the webinar was the seamless discussion that followed after every paper across the global locations. Resources were shared irrespective of borders, and knowledge was transmitted freely. That was when I began to realise the immense potential that this meeting portal had. Little did I know that in less than a year’s time, all such apps were going to become our daily fare, almost our lifeline in the professional world.

Cut to 2020. One more dimension gets added to the seamless global transference, this time not of knowledge but of a horrifying virus. Suddenly, the world has come to a standstill; as if a giant wheel has been forced to stop and the screeching sound of its breaks are deafening. The inertia of motion is still not over. The machinery that humans have set in motion will take a lot of time if ever, to come to a stop.

But it has definitely slowed down, is slowing down bit by bit every day. Like Milton, we too now say the mantra ‘they also serve who stand and wait’. We wait out the enemy. Yet in waiting out the pandemic, we hope.

In our hope lies the beauty of the human race. Yet, hope seldom lives idle. It provokes us to constantly thrive towards newer ways to bond, to communicate, to stay together and hence a drastic upsurge in video calls, group chats, online classes, and various other online activities. It is as if, by staying invisible, as much out of bounds from the stalking assassin, we are strategising our modes of combat. And this combat, the most important ammunition is happiness, hope, positivity.

That is exactly these online tools are doing at a personal level, for a particular section of our global society. I insist on saying for a particular section because it does leave out a large part of the society who cannot even afford a full meal every day or those members of the community who have to risk their lives to keep the social machinery moving – the doctors, nurses, health workers, hospital staff, greengrocers, local shops, milk depots, corporation street cleaner and many more. Long term lockdown might push many towards complete destruction medically or economically, but there is a resilience growing in pockets and places possible and technology is the greatest aid to it.

In 2016, a scholarly article in the JMIR, ‘The Effect of Information Communication Technology (ICT) Interventions on Reducing Social Isolation in the Elderly: A Systematic Review’ studying the impact of social isolation among old people (https://www.jmir.org/2016/1/e18/) states that “social isolation is a real threat to the mental and physical health of the elderly population, leading to depression, self-harm (eg, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide) or self-neglecting behaviour, a higher level of cognitive and/or physical disability, and increased mortality.”

Further elaborating upon the problem and its solution, the article enunciates, “(ICT) may overcome the social and spatial barriers of social interaction by enabling easy, affordable communication and activities of multiple forms (ie, textual, audio, and/or visual) between the elderly (often with limited mobilization) and others anytime and anywhere. Many researchers have therefore been investigating its potential for alleviating social isolation in the elderly.”

As the term social isolation has acquired a whole new connotation in the contemporary world, the above evaluation of the potentialities of ICT is also expanding and acquiring new meaning.

The role of technology in alleviating social isolation is now not limited only to the aged. It is gradually becoming the neo-normal, hopefully temporarily. We are now hearing constantly of online meetings and client calls in the new work from home normalcy, zoom classes, google classrooms, Discord to develop course modules, Google hangout meets, online poetry slams, online video meets on contemporary issues like ‘how to deal with the pandemic’, regional language meets so on and so forth.

For relatives spread across continents, video chats were for long the chief mode of communication. But now it has become the norm even for families living in different parts of the same city. Facebook has changed its contour too. Gone are the polarised polemics of the right, left or the other that had dominated the walls even quite recently; if not gone, they are at least subdued. Poetry, creative writings, music uploads, paintings have started claiming the walls. And flowers. And travel stories of a pre-pandemic age.

In short, the walls are now slowly turning into more affirming places of human interaction and trying to spread positivities. Of course, all these news feeds come amid updates of the virus and its travel path. Whole new cartography is being charted on the course of its travel in the hope of defeating it. And defeated it will be.

But till the demon is caught and killed, or at least maimed, physical de-proximity is the only mantra. And as human beings are social beings, unable to survive without its fellow creatures, ICT remains the buzzword. As we lock ourselves in, we thank the technology experts of the yore for providing us with the means to connect. In this social connect amid physical distancing, we can keep the spirit of humanity strong and growing and who knows might even emerge as a better race upon a better earth.

( The author is Assistant Professor in an Undergraduate college under Calcutta University. Views are personal)

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