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Coronavirus in the time of technology

| Wednesday, March 25, 2020

In his video message to the Notre Dame campus community, University President Fr. Jenkins said, “To all our students, you are the most tech-savvy generation in history. You are adaptable, creative and resilient. Even though you may be away from campus, use this valuable time to learn, albeit distantly.” 

He’s right. While the transition to online learning this week may not be completely free of small bumps and setbacks along the way, it is a transition that’s at its smoothest today compared to anytime in the past. We only keep moving forward, technologically speaking. The upward trend of advancement puts us in a position to combat the viral demons our global community currently faces. We are equipped, now more than ever, to stop the coronavirus in its contagious tracks. 

Due to the highly advanced technology of modern medicine, doctors can attempt to tackle the daunting tasks of treating, curing and preventing COVID-19. Due to the accessibility of unlimited news updates, few people are left in the dark about what’s going on in the world. We stay informed at all times and make decisions accordingly. Due to the familiarity and proficiency of younger generations on the internet, students may continue to learn during these trying times. 

But what if this were not the case? What if the coronavirus surfaced a few years earlier? Would we have handled the crisis any differently? It is lucky that so many people have internet access at home. Twenty years ago, this was, unsurprisingly, not the case. In 2000, 41.5% of U.S. households accessed the internet at home, compared to 85.3% as of 2018. Looking at these numbers, it is evident that what is possible today in light of this pandemic would not have been as possible years ago. 

Even if this occurred, say, five years ago, the jump from in-person classes to remote learning would not have been a conclusion administrators arrived at as quickly as they have now. It simply would not have been the clear, obvious answer that it was to everyone today. The online learning platform, Zoom, that universities and high schools across the globe are experimenting with was only introduced to the public in 2013.

Even being quarantined today means something entirely different than what it would’ve meant for people years ago. So much of our communication was done by texting, emailing and calling before the coronavirus outbreak mandated that it be done this way. Yes, we are adaptable, creative and resilient, but much of this adaptation has been underway for some time now. 

Stores can close because of eCommerce options. Universities can suspend in-person classes because of new online learning platforms. Restaurants can shut down because of delivery services like DoorDash and GrubHub. People can isolate themselves and still remain connected because of smartphones. A pandemic of this magnitude would have impacted daily life in an extremely different way a decade ago, merely because of how much has changed in the last 10 years.

In the years to follow, even more change will ensue as a result of the virus and the panic that has come with it. The effects of COVID-19 will undoubtedly impact many people in a tremendously negative way, but what is also important to consider is how it will affect daily life in the long-run. 

Will the coronavirus become nothing more than a seasonal flu that can be treated with a vaccine? Probably. Will the economy recover in its usual fashion? That is the hope. Will fearful consumers forevermore keep secret stockpiles of wipes, hand sanitizer and toilet paper, just in case something like this happens again? And how will international travel regulations be affected? Will companies realize that all shopping can, in fact, be done online, resulting in the closing of brick-and-mortar stores that planned to only temporarily shut down? Will some students realize they prefer remote learning and stay at home for longer than anticipated? What about our already heavy reliance on technology? Will it rise to even higher levels of dependency while we sit in our homes with nothing but sites to browse and feeds to scroll through? Or will we instead realize that nothing is guaranteed and come to appreciate the simple things, like gathering in groups of more than 10 people?

Many sources suggest that we are yet to experience the worst of the outbreak. If this is true, then a lot is going to happen in the near future. When this terrible situation begins to dwindle down, what will our post-coronavirus world look like? It might look the same, or this might be an event that history textbooks refer to as the spark that started the fire. The fire, of course, remains unknown to us at this point in time as we live through these difficult and uncertain times. We were standing on the horizon of immense technological, political and social change before COVID-19 came along and began to wreak its havoc. Now that it’s here, I cannot help but think that more change might come about after this is over.  

None of us really saw all of this change coming, but the virus moves incredibly fast. It cares neither about time nor the plans we all made for the second half of spring semester. It moves so fast that by the time this column is published, things will probably have shifted even more than they already have. This time three weeks ago, our greatest concerns were getting through midterms. We packed up our suitcases and flew to spring break destinations far and wide, blissfully unaware, for the most part, of the imminent cancellations and changes that were to come. Then we received the email that nobody wanted to receive and the faint tune of the popular “Education Connection” commercial of our childhoods suddenly became a frightening reality.

While, at times, we might want to throw in the towel of being “the most tech-savvy generation in history” and take on our other title as being “the laziest generation in history” (a label we have been pegged with before), we will, instead, rise to this challenge. We are creative, adaptable and resilient, and enduring this pandemic is a task we are willing to undertake. We will do so in the only way we know how: with technology. We have so long been ridiculed for having our eyes glued to our devices — and rightfully so — but right now we can use these already developed habits to our advantage. 

And so we will stay home. We will practice social distancing and let Facetimes momentarily take the place of friendly interactions. We will learn through a screen and we will consume the digital news unrelentingly thrown at us responsibly. We will do our part as millions of healthcare workers valiantly do theirs. As seasoned veterans of the technological world, we will weather this storm, wait for the waters to recede and anxiously watch as our post-coronavirus world reveals itself. 

Meghan Cappitelli is a freshman studying Economics and English at the University of Notre Dame. A native of Long Island, New York, she enjoys running, procrastinating and eating ice cream for dinner. She can be reached at [email protected] or @meghancapp on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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