The Road to the Future of Computing: Paved with a Pandemic

Kashyap Tumkur
Apr 30 · 8 min read
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(Part of) the Atlanta Skyline. Thank God for balconies! [Photo: Neha Kumar]

Our new cohort of the Future of Computing Academy kicked off in December, and has since been busy defining projects for the next year. Around the same time, the novel Coronavirus pandemic broke out in Wuhan, China, and began to make its way across the world. This post below reflects how some of our current members experienced the impact of this pandemic on their personal and professional lives.

“When did you begin to feel the impact of the pandemic?”

Residing in various parts of the world, our members have experienced the onset of the crisis at differing times and intensities. It was indirect for most, via updates from family, friends, and local media. For Luigi, who lives in Turin, Italy, “in the beginning, it was second-hand… affecting Asia, then a nearby area with limited impact where I live. In the end, it affected everything… my family, me, my work.”

Others’ encounters with the novel coronavirus seemed more direct. For instance, the virus affected Nigerian states where Yusuf’s family members live, and Cheng, living in the Anhui province of China, began hearing of confirmed cases back in January. Aishwarya felt unsettled when she found her own lived reality catch up with the news: she had only heard about COVID-19 in international media, and at a time when it was yet to gain momentum across the Indian local media, when she suddenly learned that one of her co-workers was infected, and soon received a flurry of emails from her employer mandating work-from-home and other precautionary measures. She added, “It was unfortunate news that left us worried, afraid, and in a state of confusion.”

Some had time to prepare for the arrival of the inevitable. Dilini’s region, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), observed the impact and spread of the virus across other Australian states, providing time for the ACT government to prepare and manage the onset. Having been in touch with other FCA members who were experiencing the onslaught of the coronavirus in Italy, Spain, and Germany, among others, left Neha (in the US) just a tiny bit more prepared. Even when only a handful of US west coast universities had shut down, she had a discussion about COVID with her students, in which she discovered that one of them was on immunosuppressants. She quickly moved to online teaching, before her university had made the transition official.

Despite how we were first impacted, COVID-19 undoubtedly left us all worried and anxious as we watched the pandemic unfold around the world, resulting in death and chaos. One thing we have all come to realize, to varying degrees, is that not many of our material possessions retain much value in times such as these. As Neha described, “My first week home due to COVID was spent coming to the understanding that we can subsist on very little, and that what really, truly, matters to me is that those I love are alive and well.”

“Did your government respond effectively? Did the population comply?”

Swift government action in an unprecedented health crisis becomes a major factor towards minimizing impact on a country’s population and economy. Our members were in agreement that a slow response by central and local governments was the driving cause for widespread community transmission of the virus. Lack of community-wide testing was a concern that most members highlighted. Luigi pointed out, “At the local level, we were just not ready, with only two centers for processing tests for a population of four million.” In sum, not enacting strict lockdown measures, not limiting flights — overseas or domestic, and letting non-essential services remain operational through lockdowns led to higher infection rates and entirely avoidable community distress.

Some members’ countries were proactive in dealing with the onset of the coronavirus, closing borders, enacting social distancing measures, effectively tracing contacts with confirmed cases, and efficiently utilizing task forces at different administrative levels for testing, tracing, and increasing awareness among the general public, as Aishwarya, Cheng, and Dilini shared.

Government response alone cannot effectively control impact without community support. As Salomon, in Ghana, and Yusuf noted, lack of awareness and distrust in government guidance among the population can lead to not taking preventative measures seriously, with drastic results. There are also other reasons for limited community support. Pamela, from Bolivia, remarked, “Our government responded quickly and quarantined the whole country, but they did it without a plan. Eighty percent of our economy is informal, like other countries in Latin America. That means that 8 out of 10 Bolivians live hand-to-mouth and many of them just couldn’t stay at home, and not because they don’t understand how serious this is.”

Most nations will take their time to recover, with many governments still focused on controlling the spread. In China, however, Cheng says, life and work are resuming gradually, as the government executes on a plan to reopen factories and schools and let the community return to work in batches. There is hope for the rest of us then, as we wait for our own nations to move past their peaks and begin reopening (when it is safe to do so).

“How has COVID-19 changed your day-to-day work and personal life?”

FCA members are all tied to the field of computing, and although adopting remote working conditions would appear straightforward at the outset, it turns out to be more complicated in practice. Luigi and Yusuf found they were not quite ready for the sudden shift to remote working, with no access to the right equipment or facilities. Limited facilities for teaching and research, video recording, and communication tools became major concerns. Jesmin found working from home to be more stressful, with not enough breaks in between.

On the bright side, checking on loved ones has become an important part of our members’ daily routines. Neha remarked, “Really, I cannot wait to see my parents again. And hug them. Them, and many others!” Indeed, spending time on social media, doing video calls, playing online board games, and doing “bicoastal bake-offs” have become a part of our daily lives. Cheng has turned to bodybuilding exercises to keep fit, while Neha now finds time for yoga every day (more than she could pre-COVID). Dilini and Aishwarya have found more time to reconnect with nature through long (but socially distanced!) walks, listening to birds tweeting in the neighborhood, and star-gazing, even as Luigi misses having “a larger balcony or a garden” to afford him some time in the open, fresh air.

“How did your community come together to tackle this crisis?”

In a time like this, where, as Neha remarked, “the world has collapsed to the binary state of inside-home and outside-home,” community spirit keeps us sane and binds people together. Aishwarya described her community with three words: “United. Stronger. Optimistic.” Among other things, her community has taken on the responsibility of feeding hungry stray animals in the neighborhood. They regularly participate in activities like clapping from balconies and lighting lamps and candles as a gesture of gratitude for workers on the frontlines. Neha’s and Luigi’s communities, too, have similarly celebrated healthcare workers, with some playing music every evening “full of joy, hope and prayer.” Dilini engaged in activities that reduced stress and gave the community spirit a lift, such as “a bear hunt for kids, where people placed their teddy bears at windows for kids in the neighborhood to spot while taking a walk outside (while maintaining a safe distance, of course), and chalked messages and drawings on streets with positive thoughts.” As Aishwarya noted, “It’s not just a nationwide crisis, it’s a crisis against the human race and we are all together in the process of overcoming it.” We are proud of the FCA spirit and the commitment our members have towards collective solidarity.

“Have you been involved in efforts to help with the Coronavirus response?”

Every nation is under massive duress, with limited resources and personnel for combating the crisis. Our members worldwide have witnessed and participated towards fundraising, volunteering, and spontaneous “food baskets” where you can either donate or take food as per your need.

Donations have been a common means for many of our members to offer help to those in need. Aishwarya has been involved in community-wide initiatives like mentoring kids, and designing posters and quizzes for their studies during lockdown, and Yusuf is educating teenagers on the spread of fake news and the effects of misinformation. He is also sharing guidance on social media on how to minimize the impacts of lockdown and the resulting isolation, which would be a good reference for anyone finding it difficult to cope with remote working habits. Pamela’s organization, Bolivia Tech Hub, is working to help small businesses go online by educating them with digital skills and helping them with the transition to remote workflows, and Salomon is utilizing his AI skills to contribute to the response as a member of his university. Neha, whose research focuses on computing and global health, is guiding her PhD students to investigate how frontline health workers in India are being impacted by the pandemic, and whether (and how) contact tracing apps are compromising the privacy of populations around the world.

Most importantly perhaps, our FCA members are staying home, doing their part to help reduce the spread of the virus, increasing awareness on various platforms about the global pandemic and taking the one measure we can all take to endure these difficult times: social distancing.

“Dealing with isolation can be hard, but also provides a moment for reflection. Have you found any positive habits or insights you’d like to carry forward into regular life?”

These times have challenged us greatly, but they have also given us time to focus on the important things in our lives, identify a silver lining to tough circumstances, and express gratitude for the things that matter. Neha recognized the importance of limiting time and attention on the news, and taking ownership for keeping one’s mental health in check. Cheng learned the importance of preparing for the worst things that might happen to us (even if the probability is low), and Salomon grew to appreciate the importance of facilitating effective online education. Jesmin is now more health conscious and also “life-conscious”, as she actively strives to separate her work room and bedroom (probably the case for many of us right now). Aishwarya has been able to make time, again, for reading and music, while experimenting with coloring and sketching as well. Dilini appreciates the power of humanity and good healthcare, which she believes will shape her thoughts and lifestyle for the better in the long run.

Overall, it has been a time of distress, uncertainty, and struggle, but also a time of understanding, compassion, and hard work. It has been a time of realization of our responsibilities towards the world we inhabit and the people we live amidst, and a time that has shown us the value of community and collective solidarity. This above was a glimpse into the lives of FCA members and their very human existence, as they embrace and respond to their pandemic-hit communities in their own small ways, hoping for and working towards a more grateful, considerate, and prepared world to emerge from the crisis.

Dilini, Kashyap, Neha
FCA Blog Team

ACM Future of Computing Academy

Blog of the ACM Future of Computing Academy

Kashyap Tumkur

Written by

ACM Future of Computing Academy

Blog of the ACM Future of Computing Academy

Kashyap Tumkur

Written by

ACM Future of Computing Academy

Blog of the ACM Future of Computing Academy

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