Suddenly digital: Answers to the Covid-19 crisis

Publish Date

07 APR 2020


Kai Beckmann


The coronavirus pandemic has compelled countries, the global economy and every single one of us to move our daily lives to the digital world. This is happening to an unprecedented extent and at extremely short notice.

The coronavirus pandemic has compelled countries, the global economy and every single one of us to move our daily lives to the digital world. This is happening to an unprecedented extent and at extremely short notice. Why? Because it’s the only way to ensure the necessary physical distance. Never before has our society been so dependent on broadband Internet, cloud services and mobile devices. What many don't know is that specialty chemicals for the electronics industry from our Electronics business are a fundamental part of the digital infrastructure.

In digital crisis mode

Looking out the window these days might lead you to believe that the world has come to a standstill. There are only a few cars on the streets, now and then a pedestrian – some wearing a facemask – and almost no planes in the sky. Cities and villages seem to be deserted. But appearances can be deceiving. Social life has not been brought to a standstill by the Covid-19 pandemic, it has only largely shifted to the digital world. Even if the protective measures by governments mean massive cuts for us, digital technologies allow us to continue our professional and personal lives in many ways.

For instance, we are currently witnessing a huge experiment that is showing how the digital economy can work. From one day to the next, the virtual company has become widespread reality. Employees are working from home, customers are being served online, meetings are being held as video conferences, and projects are being driven forward in the cloud using collaboration tools. This year, even events where attendance is mandatory, such as annual general meetings of publicly traded companies in Germany, will be held virtually. At Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, virtual working has been running really well, not least since we've been offering our employees remote working possibilities and flexible working models for more than seven years now.

Moving towards a virtual government

Just like the economy, the government and the political community are currently dependent on digital communication channels. To protect health, political decision-makers around the globe are holding web conferences to coordinate their coronavirus crisis management efforts as well as daily political topics. For example, for the first time since NATO was founded, a meeting of foreign affairs ministers was held as a video conference instead. Our administrative bureaucracies are less glamorous than global politics, but just as important in everyday life. Many bureaucratic procedures now have to be carried out online. That is why during the Covid-19 crisis, government offices and town halls are increasingly relying on online services, regardless of whether they relate to tax returns or the reimbursement of daycare center fees.

In the healthcare field, telemedicine is also helping to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 crisis. Examples include video consultations at the doctor's office, digital check-ups for chronic diseases or online therapies for patients with depression. And in China and South Korea, smartphone apps are already being used to actively contain the coronavirus pandemic. Real-time assessments of mobile phone data make it possible to identify areas with a particularly high risk of infection. The apps are helping decision-makers to restart public life and the economy in a targeted and measured manner. In Europe too, a joint project involving around 130 scientists is developing an app of this kind that meets our high standards of data privacy. And lastbut not least, scientists are currently working non-stop to find a vaccine against the virus using state-of-the-art digital laboratory technology and data analysis.

Education is another key public good that the Covid-19 pandemic is heavily impacting. Schools and universities are closed nationwide due to the risk of infection. Since no one knows exactly when they will be able to reopen, digital learning possibilities are needed for the transition period. Universities are broadcasting lectures via livestream, teachers are sending homework by e-mail or moving lessons straight into the virtual classroom. So there is one good thing we can gain from the current crisis: It could help digitalization to finally make a breakthrough in the world of work, schools and government agencies. 

And lastly, in times of social isolation, our personal lives are also being put to a very difficult test. At the same time, in recent weeks I have seen many great examples of how people are using creative ideas to counteract the state of physical isolation. Grandparents are doing "Facetime" with their grandchildren, birthdays are being toasted via video chat and work colleagues now simply arrange virtual lunch appointments. Skype, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, etc. are making it possible. Even spiritual and cultural life, which has been particularly hard hit by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, continues with concerts, theater performances, art exhibitions and even church services being broadcast on the Internet. Or cultural life becomes completely private, for example when professional orchestra musicians serenade you privately over the telephone.

Technology makes it possible

It’s hard to imagine what impact the coronavirus pandemic would have on the economy and society if broadband Internet, cloud services and mobile devices did not exist. Right now, everyone is even more dependent than usual on powerful computers and stable networks – whether scientists, doctors, teachers, managers, students or politicians. In many industries and government institutions, work would probably come to a complete standstill, as would our social life.

Very few people will know that our research and our products from the EMD Electronics business sector are a fundamental part of the digital infrastructure and are what make digital life possible in the first place. Our specialty chemicals for the semiconductor industry are a central component of modern microchips, without which technologies such as 5G, Big Data or AI wouldn’t be possible. And our display materials are used in notebooks, tablets and smartphones. By producing medicines and disinfectants, we at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany are making an important contribution in the current crisis. I’m optimistic that the situation will hopefully end soon and we’ll be able to return to everyday life, even if it will certainly won’t be the same as it was before the crisis. Until then, we must be able to rely on the technology. 

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