There are some interesting reflections on this last year by Jim O'Neill, Chair of Chatham House, (former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management and a former UK treasury minister). He is looking at which pandemic induced changes are likely to prove long-lasting. His view is more at a global or governmental scale, which got me thinking as to what changes will remain at a more local level.
In Oxfordshire, as in most parts of the country and the world, we have seen a great shift to digital. Schools closing, shops delivering, offices closing, and maintaining social distancing has seen all of us shift most, or all of our usual daily activities to online. While writing this blog I am at home with two boys on laptops working there way through Google Classroom, later tonight my wife is having a gossip with friends on Zoom, and I will probably order takeaway food online as last weeks shop is running a bit low and who knows if I can get another delivery slot. This is not what my life was like a year ago.
Working in the charity sector, I realise how lucky / privileged I am. After a week of lockdown I noticed how difficult it was for my two boys to engage with their online schooling on one laptop - I bought an additional Chromebook. In the meantime I was assessing numerous grant applications from schools (primary and secondary) and charities for laptops for their more disadvantaged pupils / beneficiaries, who could not afford to buy there own laptops or the data required.
In the article, Jim O'Neill writes, "unless everyone has access to technology, major national initiatives, such as COVID-19 test-and-trace schemes, are unlikely to succeed." I agree, but I feel that unless everyone has access to the technology, society as a whole is unlikely to succeed. We have seen older people groups, disabled people and people with learning disabilities services, education, homeless services, mental health provision, and more shift to almost an exclusively online presence. For such a large number of people to be left behind would be catastrophic both societally and economically. It is far cheaper to ensure that everybody has access to the necessary technology than to deal with the consequences of them missing the support they require: unemployment, loneliness, poor mental health, poor physical health, an overwhelmed NHS, rising crime, etc.
The positive change that we have seen during the pandemic is the increase in awareness of the problems that we have in our neighbourhoods and the willingness to do something about them. I hope that this is a lasting change, and we must do whatever we can to ensure that it is. The public sector has tried to meet most of the challenges that the pandemic has thrown at us, but I am proud to say that the charity sector and volunteers have, perhaps due to their smaller size and local base, been more agile. The government should play a big role in ensuring that all citizens have access to digital technologies, but it is probably too big a job for them to do alone. We must all look to see what we can do. Do you have an old, unused laptop, tablet, or mobile phone? Could this be reconditioned and used by a schoolchild, an isolated or lonely person? Could you help to clean computers of data, or collect them, or redistribute them?
If you would like to share your time, talent, treasure or technology, please get in touch with your local school or charity. There are a number of charities now looking to take in laptops for reconditioning.
At OCF we are starting a "Get Oxfordshire Online" programme which will build an infrastructure to ensure everyone can get what they need. Watch this space, we'll need your help soon.
It may be too soon to draw firm conclusions about which pandemic-induced changes are likely to prove long-lasting. But some of the most significant could include enhanced vaccine development, increased government spending, accelerated digitalization, and the continued rise of China. Crucially, governments must also play a bigger role in ensuring that all citizens have access to digital technologies (in the same way that they should ensure universal access to education and health care). Unless everyone has access to technology, major national initiatives, such as COVID-19 test-and-trace schemes, are unlikely to succeed.