It’s now been a full year since many Americans have eaten at a restaurant, been inside a grocery store, attended a meeting, been out of town or have been in the home of a friend or family member.
Although some of us are more fortunate than others, it’s been a tough year for all of us. But tech — despite its problems — has figuratively and — in some cases literally — been a life saver. We’ve learned a lot, and some of those lessons will be helpful going forward.
Not everyone has been able to take full advantage of technology. There are many people who must still go to work, sometimes in dangerous conditions. There are still Americans who don’t have access to broadband or even smartphones because of financial constraints, where they live or lack of technical skills. And all the tech in the world can’t dull the pain of enduring serious illness, losing a loved one or trying to cope with severe economic hardship.
Although food insecurity in America has become a crisis, online grocery delivery and curbside pick-up services have made it possible for most people to get the food they need without exposing themselves and others. And, even though many restaurants have gone out of business and service workers have lost their jobs, online delivery and pick-up services and restaurant apps have provided some relief to this distraught industry.
Although some people must still come to their work facilities and others no longer have jobs, millions of people have been able to remain at work without having to commute. Video conferencing tools, remote networks, collaborative tools like Slack and Google Docs are not new, but, because of the pandemic, they’ve become popular and have proven their value. Several tech companies have already announced that they will allow many of their workers to continue to work from home after the pandemic is over. For those who prefer that work-style, the pandemic has opened doors that might have otherwise remained closed.
For children, remote learning is a poor substitute for being at school, but it’s what we have and better than nothing. Once it’s safe, I expect most K-12 schools to return to full-time in-person learning, but I do expect to see a continuation of online college and professional development as well as personal learning, though I’m sure most college students are anxious to return to campus.
Virtually all of our meetings these days are virtual, and although in-person meetings will make a comeback, I think we’ll see a continuation of online meetings, especially for people who aren’t in the same area. In some ways, I prefer Zoom meetings, because I find it easier to focus. Zoom has allowed me to interact with colleagues from around the world whom I would otherwise only rarely see.
If you watch TV news, you have no doubt noticed that the guests and many of the anchors and reporters are now working from home. That’s long been possible, but until the pandemic, it was rare. Even though there have been plenty of bloopers and live on-air mishaps, CNN’s chief media correspondent Brian Stelter said that remote TV appearances are likely here to stay. He pointed out that it makes it easier to get big-name guests, because a three-minute interview doesn’t require spending a couple of hours going to and sitting around a remote studio. Bay Area KTVU reporter Tom Vacar told me that he now has access to experts from around the country and the world who were never accessible when the station required guests to be in the studio. “I see Zoom as an indispensable tool that improves our ability to cover the news,” he said.
Telemedicine has also taken off because of the pandemic. Even though it’s long been possible, I never had a virtual doctor’s visit until last year. Many clinics and doctors are now encouraging virtual visits where the doctor and patient can see each other. Instead of my usual routine physical, I had a virtual doctor’s visit, which also included reviewing health data collected at home such as blood pressure data from an Omron 10 Series Wireless Upper Arm Blood Pressure Monitor, which is actually more useful than what the doctor would have measured because it shows a range of readings over time. Patients concerned about heart health can do their own electrocardiograms with tools like AliveCor Kardia Mobile Personal EKG or smart watches like the Apple Watch and Fitbit Sense, which can generate reports that you can send to your doctor.
At an in-person checkup, the doctor or nurse usually puts a pulse oximeter on your finger to measure blood oxygen levels (SpO2) which can be a sign of COVID-19 as well as other respiratory issues, but you can buy your own pulse oximeter like the Zacurate 500BL for as little as $15. The Apple Watch Series 6 can also measure SpO2. The Fitbit Sense measures oxygen levels, pulse rate and respiration rate while you sleep.
Most people still have to go to a lab for routine blood work, but you can review the results online. For some patients, some of those tests can be done at home, and there are reports that the next Apple Watch will offer non-invasive blood sugar monitoring, which could literally be a lifesaver for some people.
How what we learned will apply to “new normal”
As I look forward to the next year, I’m optimistic that vaccines will help us return to a “new normal.” I can’t help thinking about what we’ve learned during lockdown and how that will apply going forward. It’s pretty clear that “normal” will never be the same, and in some ways, that could be a good thing if we take what we’ve learned during the pandemic and selectively apply some of these lessons to our lives going forward.
Still, there are some old routines that I hope to resume. The food from my local restaurants tastes OK when I eat it at home, but I’m looking forward to proper dining and being served. Virtual meetings are OK, but I miss being around colleagues and getting to visit some of my favorite cities. And, as much as I love the virtual dinners and video chats with my adult kids and my friends, I can’t wait to hang out with them in person.
Finally, I hope we’ve all learned a little humility and compassion and that individually and collectively through government, we take heart in the notion that “we are all in this together” to build a more inclusive and just society.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.