Post-COVID 19: The Virtual World And Digital Participation And Its Challenges In Ghana – Modern Ghana

Many of us today in the heat of the global pandemic has inbuilt high hopes anticipating a return to normalcy of the world after the present ugly day, but I am convinced there will be no world of going back but rather a world of moving forward.

It is noteworthy, that the world has transitioned once again from the inherent system of industrialization and modernization to a more technologically sophisticated new world; the virtual world. Virtual has become the new reality.

This is not to say humans havent experienced revolution of this kind ever, but rather another facet of human evolution. Long before the global evasion of COVID -19, an unassuming majority of the human population was already living dual lives: face to face living and the virtual citizenship (online community on virtual platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, twitter, to mention but few). Even at this level, the choice remain optional whether to subscribe to the virtual way or maintain the traditional way of life.

I must say, however, that even during this period of the transition, human activities have migrated to the new planet by converting to the virtual availability for the sake of survival. The human living has already transitioned for the better. The fact is that, the physical structures will not magically be changed due to the pandemic but the pre-COVID- 19 systems have changed and will remain the same thereafter.

The church cathedrals will be in place, schools and hospitals will remain, workplaces and other established ways of human socialization will remain but the church will not see members congregating as it was in 2019, lecture halls will not have students present in their masses for tutorials, hospitals will have less patients on admission, not because people wont fall sick, industries and companies will see less workers; all these activities will migrate to the virtual world and it has already begun taking stool in our present day.

Online classes are ongoing for students, pastors are going live online using various platforms, in some part of the world virtual medication is already the reality where doctors attend to their patients from home, some companies have shifted operations to online where staffs work from the comfort of their homes, all these are to ensure the safety of individual lives and at large saving the world from the dreaded pandemic towards survival in the next world.

All these are possible due to digitization of the world. About 4.021 billion of the world population is now online representing over half of the world population. This phenomena is the foundation of the new virtual world. For this reason, it is imperative as a country for us to consider our readiness for this global shift putting in perspective our level of digitization, participation, and its negative and positive influence on our future existence.

Ghana has over ten million internet users representing 35% of the total population with 5.60 million active social media users. The country has 32% active mobile internet users. We have seen a spike in mobile phone usage in the country over the decades, a phenomena that give rise to the number of internet users in the country. The data in its nature also tells us as reported on daily graphic online, that more people in our country use the internet with mobile phone as compared to other electronic device. Our internet penetration rate also spiked to over 37% of the population with the majority being the youths, leaving the older generation behind the mechanical world.

Inasmuch as we see more young people living half of their lives online even before the pandemic, there is a need to cross check our digital participation given the reason that digital inclusion and exclusion in Africa often highlight the lack of internet access as the main barrier to participation, but access is not the only way to effective digital participation and a lot more people in our country are not participating digitally. The DW Akademie reported a model to digital participation naming factors such as innovation, digital right, society, media and journalism as the definition of effective digital participation.

On Access, the model maintained that internet access is the foundation for people to participate in the digital world, in this case, the virtual world after COVID - 19. There are things that define access level of a country: A countrys Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and bandwidth quality are some of the indicators that determine Internet access. Having red this, one will realized that, we have a long way to go since there are communities even in the cities having problem with effective internet connectivity, and the expansion of bandwidth is mostly done in the big cities. What then becomes the reality of the rural dwellers who would have to be part of the new planet? The solution as prescribed by DW Akademie, for more access is that government must invest in infrastructure and civil society initiatives to offer public Wifi or community networks. This will require that devices such as mobile phones and computers be made affordable for at least the low to middle income earners to be able to have access to the internet. The cost of internet service must also be reduced to the level of the laymans strength and connectivity must expand beyond the current speed on even a 4G network

Innovation and participation are different sides of the same coin. The model explained that the rapid development of internet infrastructure and services are changing the ways that organizations, citizens, and journalists communicate. In this regard, the transition to the new planet of virtual realities demand the use of more sophisticated technologies, advancement of existing technologies in the country. The digital developments are marked by new forms of communication, new media formats and new business models.

The experience of media houses hosting panel discussions in the studios with the guests present has already seen a transition to online platforms such as zoom and Skype. However, there must be new innovation to redirect the virtual reality with the masses as well. Innovation often foster the participation of users in content creation, thereby making them recipient of information and active participants. New ways of accessing media content must be designed to suit our people as the world prepares for the new reality. The best way to achieve innovation is to study the existing technologies and bring the experts on board to develop ways of doing those things differently using the internet in such a manner that involves the participation of every citizen irrespective of their economic status and geographical location.

Discussing digital participation without digital right and literacy will amount to forcing the camel through the eye of the needle. The model directs that digital rights are part of the legal framework which determines if citizens are able to exert their fundamental human rights to freedom of expression, access to information and their rights to privacy. In our case, every Ghanaian has the freedom to express their opinions freely using any medium, a situation which has given rise to misinformation and disinformation.

The Right to Information Bill ( RTI) has also been passed into law and yet to be tested. However, one of the measures put in place to manage the spread of the pandemic seemed to have a taken a toll on the issue of privacy where a contact traced must provide certain vital information that borders on their private and family life. If this measure remain unchanged and we finally transit to the virtual world, then privacy as a digital right will be undermine.

Preparing for the virtual world, government must put measures in place to educate the populace on digital rights and mannerism on the online planet. People must know what is legitimate and what is fake and must be responsible for their actions online. Some other attributes that define digital rights as reported by the DW includes freedom of speech laws, the use of surveillance technologies, online activism by civil society groups or Internet governance processes.

As we prepare to face the new reality of the virtual world, one factor to be considered as digital participation is concerned is our society since according to the digital participation model, socio- cultural factors and education determine how individuals, groups, and societies can participate in the digital sphere.

Cultural norms, cultural imperatives and the literacy level may influence digital participation in both positive and negative ways. It has raised concerns as a country having 47% illiteracy rate ( US depth of States, 2009) to change the traditional believes of people who by their orientation regard technology as evil to accepting participation.

It is also of concern to begin working on our young people especially those below age sixteen who will be exposed to this virtual reality for the purpose of education and research. The possibilities of these young people becoming morally ineffective post-COVID-19 is on the high side to say. Our social moral values may be compromised and altered in various ways.

For example, in a typical traditional home today, it is regarded that it only the men who own and use technologies while women are excluded from taking advantage of them. But for the purpose of the new planet, these same women would have to own and use technologies for their daily endeavours.

Market women would have to avoid dealing with physical cash and resort to electronic payment modules such express pay, mobile money payment etc. When this finally become the reality, men in these homes are going to subject their wives to hardship and abuse, a situation which can result in many homes broken and the consequences on children and our society cant be undermined. For this reason, education on these areas of society must begin even before we finally make the move in order to avert its pending consequences.

Again, our socity has a long standing culture of socialization through public gatherings such as funerals and festivals, an action which has taken a new form by virtue of the global pandemic. Moving forward into participating in the digital world, our society and traditional leaders must be reoriented to understand that such social gatherings cant be possible in the former way but in the new order; the virtual way. That not say, our children are also going to lose these values in their moral lives.

Be as it may, one cannot talk at length about digital participation and its threats to our society without linking it to the brainchild of society; the media. According to the digital participation model as published by the DW Akademie, media and journalism is the foundation of societys information supply, its social discourse, and its democratic processes.

It maintained that societal discussions based on knowledge and facts are only possible if citizens are informed. In its opinion, the variety, quality, timeliness, and scope of content and media that can be accessed through the internet as well as participative formats determine digital participation in society. Media contents and its accessibility on the digital platform must be made possible by government policies of equal digital rights.

This can enable active participation of citizens in content creation, receiving and encourage effective political participation among citizens. However, a common challenge associated to the virtual media and journalism would be increased invasion of citizen journalists, creating room for fake news and in consequence reduce patronage, trust and relevance of the mainstream practice of professional journalism.

The media outlets will be anxious to break the news on the virtual platform as early as possible in order to meet the principle of timeliness. But this in itself can become problematic as the principle of gatekeeping will be taken out and paving way for inaccuracies in media reportage as the journalist sitting at the comfort of his or her home will make haste to break the news using new media devices available to them.

While we anticipate the imminent transition of the world into the virtual era is only possible using the internet, Africa has the highest data charges and all efforts in reducing the cost of data havent been rapid. The World Bank has lamented over the high cost of internet in low to middle income countries including Ghana. A study finding in October, 2018 by Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), showed that more than 2.3 billion people live countries where just a Gigabyte of mobile data is not affordable.

The ugly side of the virtual world unfold in such cases as majority of people in Ghana within the low income level cannot afford mobile data to have access to the internet in order to fully participate in the digital world even as they have the electronic devices. On the average, one gigabyte of data can cost the Ghanaian GH. 20.00 and 200GB at an average cost of not less than GH 400.00.

The conundrum remained; how do the student access internet for lectures when data charges are relatively high in the country? What about the business men and women who by no fault of theirs would have to convert online in the coming reality?

What will then be the fate of the over nine million active mobile internet users in the country and the 5.60 million people who depend on internet data for social media usage? These and many other economic challenges would become the true colour of our next transition into the world of internet of things.

As the world gradually approach this transition to the virtual world, internet security and governance will be the next focus for our leaders to work on. Already the internet in Africa is crowded with people with ill will to intimidate and blindfold others for their parochial interest. The Ministry of Communication and the National Communication Authority must start developing pragmatic measures to avert and check cybercrimes as we zoom into the world of internet because more people will subscribe to the internet. Banks and financial institutions must equally start developing more virtually accessible and affordable ways of transaction while they protect their customers on the platforms.

Labour and skills is gradually taking a new turn to the world of technology where robotics is the new way. A situation which will make work easier and faster but also will leave more people jobless; a breeding ground for more crimes and poverty as most companies have already started reducing their staffs.

It is rather prudent for us to divert our skills training to more scientific and Information Technologically incline than the humanities. Individuals must take up the challenge to add value to their existing skills by learning ICT in order to remain relevant in the virtual world.

Having analyzed ways to digital participation, one would extrapolate that the global economy in the post COVID - 19 world will thrive on virtual realities, and it will be impossible to make a surge in such a world without having what it takes get citizens to fully participate in the digital world and control its pending challenges.

The efforts and the initiative of digitization as introduced by the incumbent government and championed by the Vice President, Dr. Mahamadu Bawumia must be a national concern and must not be seen as a political score sheet as such initiatives will only place us at a competitive advantage in the new virtual world. Individual members and corporate bodies including technology hubs and think-tanks must contribute their quota toward achieving that reality. Digitization is the next world reality and the earlier we prepare for this great transition, the better our survival in the post COVID - 19 new world.

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Post-COVID 19: The Virtual World And Digital Participation And Its Challenges In Ghana - Modern Ghana

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