From medical consultations, dating to workouts: How internet is keeping our worlds running amid lockdowns

April 5, 2020 1:00 AM

From home workouts and remote medical consultations to online classes and even virtual dating, technology today is ensuring that our lives go on, albeit from behind the screen

From remote medical consultations and virtual dating to home workouts and even online art auctions, technology today is ensuring that our lives go on, albeit from behind the screen.From remote medical consultations and virtual dating to home workouts and even online art auctions, technology today is ensuring that our lives go on, albeit from behind the screen.

By Reya Mehrotra

In March 2017, South Korea-based American political analyst Robert E Kelly rose to fame when his live interview for BBC News from his home office was gatecrashed by his four-year-old daughter and nine-month-old son, followed by his wife who quickly dragged the two out, closing the door behind her. Last month, the video went viral again. BBC News, in fact, called back the whole family on air recently to talk about the challenges of working from home.

With the Coronavirus outbreak and resultant lockdowns, terms like ‘work from home’, ‘self-quarantine’ and ‘social distancing’ have become the new global normal. But even as we stay locked up in our homes and divided by social distance, there’s one thing that’s not only unifying us, but also keeping our worlds running: the internet. From remote medical consultations and virtual dating to home workouts and even online art auctions, technology today is ensuring that our lives go on, albeit from behind the screen. Internet traffic, not surprisingly, has been on the rise, say digital industry stakeholders, adding that measures are already underway to meet the growing demand.

Consult Dr Chatbot

While technology is invading and revolutionising many fields, it has proven to be the most beneficial in the field of healthcare in recent times. Experts, in fact, believe that telemedicine (the practice of caring for patients remotely when the provider and patient are not physically present with each other) could become the new common in this decade. In his recent address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, advised people to consult doctors on the phone as much as possible. Soon after, the government issued telemedicine guidelines to lessen the burden of doctors and hospitals. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) has also set up teleconsultation facilities for patients requiring follow-up consultations as the OPDs are closed.

Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO), too, launched a free WhatsApp chatbot to provide people latest information about novel Coronavirus. The chatbot answers questions when the user types a given number, or emoji, corresponding to a particular query. Currently available in English, the chatbot will soon be available in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish.

A number of healthcare giants, too, have, in less than a month’s time, launched online portals for those seeking medical advice from home. Dubai-based healthcare centre Aster DM Healthcare has launched a 24×7 online COVID-19 portal that provides free teleconsulting services and will be operated by doctors from internal medicine and emergency departments from five states in India. “The tele-triage (assessment of the condition and appropriate guidance for treatment) service will be free for everyone across India seeking medical help if they suspect they have symptoms related to novel Coronavirus. People can register on our website or Facebook page and book an appointment. The appointment would be conducted through a video call following medical protocols approved by the local authorities and WHO for triaging COVID-19 patients,” says Azad Moopen, founder chairman and managing director, Aster DM Healthcare. “The online service promotes social distancing, while also giving patients easy access to expert advice when they need it the most,” he adds.

Portea Medical, another Indian healthcare company, has launched Cobot-19, an information and awareness chatbot, in partnership with the government of Goa and Verloop, a customer support and engagement automation platform. Accessible on WhatsApp, the chatbot is a source of information on COVID-19 through data gathered from sources like the WHO, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Johns Hopkins University. More than 6.5 lakh conversations have already taken place on the bot.

Fitterfly, a digital health and therapeutics startup, which has an online programme and app, has seen increased traffic in the last month. “We help people fight lifestyle diseases like diabetes and polycystic ovary syndrome… and counsel pregnant women and children through our three-month paid programme, wherein our trained coaches talk to patients twice a day through automated chat facilities or on call. In the last month or so, we have seen about 20% growth in our downloads and membership subscriptions as people want to avoid hospitals and instead are seeking healthcare online. We are also issuing advisories related to COVID-19 through our app,” says Arbinder Singal, a paediatric urologist who is the CEO and co-founder of Fitterfly.

Study from home

Not just ‘work from home’, tech has enabled ‘study from home’ as well. Top universities like Oxford and Cambridge, in fact, have announced that their summer exams will be replaced by online assessments in the face of the Coronavirus outbreak.

In India, too, many schools and colleges have taken to teaching students virtually in these times. The Delhi government, in fact, started virtual classes for all government schools from April 1. It has also urged CBSE schools to start online classes amid the lockdown, so that students don’t miss out on studies.
Schools in other states are also doing the same. “Our virtual classes commenced at the beginning of March and will continue till the school reopens, as per the advice from the government,” says Naveen KM, managing director, Trio World Academy, an international day and resident boarding school in Bengaluru. “We have introduced highly secure technologies such as Cisco WebEx, a web-conferencing tool typically used at the corporate level to conduct meetings from remote locations, along with Zoom, Edmodo, Skype and ManageBac to help us arrange live interaction sessions, as well as air pre-recorded sessions between students and teachers. These sessions are followed by a live discussion and QnA with teachers. Our school app, ERP, is used to upload important resources, audio-visual links, assignments, homework and worksheets,” he adds.

One of the earliest movers, however, was ed-tech platform EduBrisk, which promotes the idea of e-learning. “Our content, tests and assignments can be viewed from any device simultaneously by a virtual classroom group. The online video class with shared content is the icing on top, which creates the real classroom effect,” says Saiju Aravind, founder, EduBrisk, adding that they are seeing a surge in demand currently.

Open library

For bibliophiles, there could have been no better time to indulge in their favourite pastime and publishers realise this well. It’s no wonder then that Juggernaut recently started the #readinstead campaign, which allows people to access for free a large catalogue of the digital publishing house’s bestsellers and award-winning titles on its app. Books such as A Century is not Enough by BCCI chief Sourav Ganguly, Bottle of Lies by bestselling author Katharine Eban, Kohinoor by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, Half The Night is Gone by Amitabh Bagchi, etc, have been made free.

Other publishing houses also have their own unique initiatives. Priya Kapoor, editorial director, Roli Books, shares that the publishing house will be giving away one free e-book every few days. There are other initiatives as well. “At 12 pm daily, we go live on Instagram to take questions, anything from book recommendations to how to survive the lockdown to details about the publishing process,” says Kapoor. “Some of our authors have made videos especially to talk about their books and why people should read them at this time… most of these are available as e-books, so readers can download them. We have one health/immunity-boosting tip from our expert authors, one for each day of the self-quarantine,” she says, adding, “We have also started a weekly programme called The Roli Culture Series, where we have experts narrating the story of Indian art, design, etc, through 10 pieces/objects. We are also publishing new books as e-books first, with the print edition following later.”

There are now plans to start a virtual book club as well. “We will also be announcing a virtual book club soon starting with Paro Anand and her book Pure Sequence. The first 10 people will get its e-book for free and, a week later, they can have an online meet/discussion with Paro. A short story contest, ‘Life in the time of Corona’—wherein the best 10 people will be selected and published in the form of an e-book—is also on the way,” shares Kapoor.

Click for art

Online art auctions are nothing new, but their importance is being felt strongly now. New York-based auction house Sotheby’s, in fact, shifted its live sales for the months of March and April to the online auction format. “We will debut a new e-catalogue experience in mid-April, featuring enhanced visual storytelling through video and interactive media. We have invested heavily in technology to ensure that we have the best digital tools in the marketplace, including our propriety online sale platform, which we are using to benefit and support our clients,” says Charles F Stewart, CEO, Sotheby’s, whose online sales for 2020 have been robust, raising more than $20 million so far.

Events such as art auctions, conferences, trade shows, seminars, workshops, etc, are increasingly moving online. One of the biggest reasons behind this is the ease technology offers in today’s day, bringing people across geographies and time zones together on one screen. “Steps involved in cloud events include enabling organisers to host the event on the internet, accessing via mobile and web, and bringing the audience together digitally,” explains Atul Todi, CEO and co-founder, 10Times, one of the largest business event platforms to find upcoming events online.

Gym comes home

Before the lockdown, pictures of celebrities entering and leaving gyms donning trendy sportswear would trend on social media. While we might not see such pictures now as gyms are shut, what’s trending instead is the hashtag #homeworkouts, wherein people are posting photos/videos of themselves working out at home. Many online fitness brands are cashing in on the trend, with coaches even creating WhatsApp groups to train people virtually.

Fitness apps, too, are seeing increased engagement due to COVID-19. “Our app engagement and downloads have been going up since the past two weeks. We’re conducting free online training sessions twice a day for anyone who’s working out at home. We observed approximately 13,000 downloads in the last seven days, a bump of about 15% compared to previous statistics. Our coaches are engaging with users through our app,” says Jitendra Chouksey, founder of FITTR, an Indian fitness app.

Things, however, are not all rosy. While the downloads may be up, the lockdown has resulted in a financial hit. “The app engagement and downloads haven’t resulted in any positive impact on our sales. These are testing times and so we don’t expect people to spend money, but sales are down by 20-25% and if COVID-19 continues to spread, we might experience a further slowdown,” says Chouksey.

Love in the time of Corona

They say love always finds a way and so it has even with the social distancing. Coming as a blessing for single people, online dating platforms are seeing a surge in users. Tinder, Bumble and OKCupid are all witnessing an increase in usage and downloads ever since lockdowns have been announced in various parts of the world.
Gleeden—a French online dating community and social networking service primarily marketed to women (specifically those who are already in a relationship)—has seen an upsurge in the time users spend on the website. “We have witnessed longer time spent on the website, longer threads in chats, an increase in the upload of pictures in both public and private albums, and in the number of members who are updating their profiles with a new description,” says a spokesperson. In Italy, Europe’s worst-hit country by COVID-19, the company observed a boom in subscriptions after the first week (of March) that has tripled in the past two-three weeks. “The traffic on the website has been increasing by 300% and the time spent on the website went from an average of two hours to the current average of three hours every day. The same pattern is being witnessed in other countries as well such as France, India and Spain, where the lockdown started recently,” he adds.

Self-quarantine bucketlist

For DIY lovers, staying at home means productive time and there are many platforms catering to them too. Woovly, a social discovery website, for one, helps one list down their wishes, helping them create their DIY lockdown bucketlist. It then facilitates the fulfilment of activities that can be done from home, like baking a cake.

Miss hanging out on weekends at the bar? While you may have to wait before you can visit it next, you can relive the experience of whipping up a cocktail at home with Barsys Coaster, a compact device that turns users into instant mixologists. Users simply have to select the cocktail they would like to make, place a glass on the device’s surface and follow the instructions on the Barsys Coaster App. The device changes colour to indicate when to start and stop pouring each ingredient, making quality cocktails anywhere, anytime.

For those who love cooking, too, the internet has come to the rescue, with various tutorials and theory classes online to choose from. “We are conducting free Facebook Live and Insta Live classes to keep people occupied while at home. These recipes are taught by top-notch chefs and can be made with basic food ingredients available at home,” says Dinesh Sharma, co-founder, Academy of Pastry & Culinary Arts, a group of professional culinary and pastry schools in Gurugram, Mumbai and Bengaluru, with its main branch in Malaysia. “We have already witnessed over 3,500 viewers for our live videos and expect more people to join in the days to come,” he adds.

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