It would be remiss at this time to ignore the devastating effects and enormous threat posed by the current pandemic caused by the novel COVID-19 virus. We acknowledge that the greatest peril posed by the virus is to the lives of those who have contracted the disease. However, it is also relevant to note the effects that the prevention methods being implemented by affected countries and communities are having on people’s ability to continue to work and access education.

On Sunday the 15th of March, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the COVID-19 outbreak has been declared a national state of disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act. In addition to heightened surveillance and travel bans targeting high-risk areas (such as Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom and China), schools and learning institutions have been ordered to close and gatherings of more than 100 people have been prohibited.

The urgent advice from medical professionals around the globe is for everyone to do their part in ‘flattening the curve’ – that is, taking proactive steps to ensure that not too many people fall ill too quickly, thereby overwhelming an already-stressed public health system.

The pro-AV industry has a critical role to play in supporting a move towards self-isolation and self-quarantine of those who are even mildly unwell, by providing governments, enterprises, companies large and small and learning institutions with the technology needed to allow those in quarantine to continue to work and learn.

The work that we do

While robotics and automation have started to impact the way that South Africans work and the type of work that we do, the country still relies heavily on manual labour. It is not possible to mine minerals, build, manufacture, assemble or repair physical goods remotely, and therefore remote working during a mass quarantine situation would pose an enormous risk to our already-fragile economy.

Access to the internet

There are a wide range of affordable, accessible and highly effective tools available to support remote working and learning. Video conferencing is an extremely powerful tool to facilitate meetings between people in remote locations and students can attend lectures and classes given by teachers over streaming services and enjoy collaborative learning through webinars in the safety of their homes. However, without a reliable high-speed internet connection, none of these tools are of any use. According to the South African General Household Survey of 2018, about 65% of South Africans are active internet users. While these numbers continue to grow and data costs are set to come down in the near future, this still leaves a huge portion of the population without access to these technologies.

The tools we need    

While only 28% of South African households have a computer in the home (National Household Survey, 2018), the penetration of smartphones, which afford users many of the same opportunities to access the tools needed for remote working and learning opportunities, is profound. According to the 2018 National Household survey, 90% of economically active South Africans rely on cellular phones for communication, with a very large proportion of these devices being smartphones. While solid video conferencing and collaboration technologies are optimal when using computers that offer high-speed processing, high-resolution screens, quality audio and cloud computing functionalities, smartphones and tablets may prove our best tool to use in the event of mass quarantine.

As South Africans, we are accustomed to facing adversity and our can-do attitude is renowned throughout the world. However, an uncontrolled outbreak of COVID-19 in South Africa would represent a challenge greater than anything our young democracy has yet faced. I live in hope that we escape the worst of a COVID-19 outbreak, but if that does not prove the case, it may provide an opportunity to prove our much loved-national maxim “together we are stronger.” The Pro-AV industry has the knowledge, skills and tools available make a powerful and meaningful contribution to supporting those affected by quarantine procedures – not just in South Africa, but globally.

As the South African Government introduces crucial intervention measures to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus, I hope to see all of our industry stakeholders taking up the cause should the need arise. I live in even greater hope that business and government decision-makers tasked with managing a home-bound population will resist the urge to stockpile tissue paper, and rather reach out to our AV and IT experts during these difficult times.