It’s disaster time again: telework to the rescue

The world never seems to stop having disasters. And it’s time again to start the 2020 disaster season. The disaster most in the public consciousness today is the coronavirus. I remember writing about its predecessor, SARS, as well as other disasters of the time, 16 years ago. That article is on our website under the title War, pestilence, natural disasters. What I said then is even more true today: teleworking is a great tool for coping with disasters.

For example consider China. China, Wuhan in particular, appears to be the origin of the latest pandemic. From a few reported cases in January 2020 the number of people infected with the coronavirus has swollen to more than 70,000 with almost 1800 fatalities as of this writing. Most of the people affected are in China but the disease has spread to many other countries, including the US. It has also had a growing negative effect on global commerce. The Chinese school systems have shut down after Chinese New Year because of the virus.

Or have they?


It turns out that telelearning has taken a bold step in China. According to Xinhua, the Chinese news agency:

Millions of Chinese students are restricted to their homes due to a nationwide epidemic control mechanism started on Monday to provide online learning, as the new school semester originally scheduled for Feb. 17 is currently postponed without a specific [opening] date.

Primary and middle schools in China are required to open online curriculums by using official educational websites to ensure that 180 million students “are occupied with the guided study at home.”

MIT’s Technology Review says: “The approach differs by age. Primary school classes are being broadcast on one of China’s state TV channels. Junior and senior high school students in China can use an online learning platform which has 169 lessons covering 12 subjects for the first week, based on the national curriculum. Teachers will keep updating the platform with new materials as needed.”

To ensure that the learning materials are available to those 180 million students Technology Review notes that the “government has enlisted the China’s three biggest telecoms operators—China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom—plus tech companies like Huawei, Baidu and Alibaba to back up the platform with 90 terabytes of bandwidth and 7,000 servers, ensuring up to 50 million students can use it simultaneously, according to state broadcaster CCTV News. About 600,000 teachers have also been using a livestreaming service called Dingtalk, built by Alibaba, to conduct online classes, the company said.”

And it’s not just Chinese students who are turning to remote work. Office workers are being forced to work at home as well. As a result Alibaba’s Dingtalk has been at the top of Apple’s App Store in China since early February. Chinese downloads of business apps for iPhones more than doubled in Early February, according to the Financial Times.

The U.S.

Now why didn’t we think of that?

Well, actually we did, several decades ago. Since the 1970s we’ve been preaching that telecommuting/teleworking and telelearning are viable solutions to natural and unnatural disasters. It’s not just pestilence for which teleworking is useful. There are other disasters going on at the same time as the coronavirus. These include earthquakes, floods such as those in Mississippi, the UK and elsewhere just this week. There are lots of location-independent activities that are being followed as if they were location-dependent. We know how to do it right. We know how to address these problems. American companies increasingly are adopting remote working for all sorts of reasons, not just for disaster survival.

Furthermore, the climate emergency is forcing all of us to make it happen. So let’s just do it without waiting for disaster!

[Updated on 19 February 2020.]

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