Why Going Digital Isn’t Quite A Blanket Solution For COVID-19


In a world where options for going out are severely limited by the national social distancing plan in place, using digital tools to bring the outside world in has become the next best option.  And as it turns out, a lot of things actually digitize pretty well.

People can’t go to the movies, so the studios are releasing the movies for home streaming months ahead of schedule.  Workers have been strongly advised, and in some cities and states ordered, to stay home, so entire corporate processes are getting a digital overhaul to enable remote work.  Even people who need medical attention or to see a therapist have telehealth options that will both keep people at home and emergency rooms clear of excess patients.

Digitization, while not a perfect solution, is at least managing to make social distancing manageable in many situations for people, if not a ringingly pleasant experience. The concurrent evolutions of eCommerce, streaming services, social media, digital payments and delivery infrastructure have meant that an awful lot of day-to-day life can be relocated to a digital milieu.

A lot, but not all — because for as many things that have moved at least semi-smoothly online, other things have made for a somewhat more awkward fit.  Some things are, in fact, better done in person.

Funerals are a prime example.

Because funerals and wakes are the sort of tightly-packed events that public health officials are desperately trying to get people to avoid, the CDC has officially requested that funeral directors  move services online amid the coronavirus outbreak.  And that, notably, is quite a few services being put on hold or moved online indefinitely — there are approximately 7,000 deaths in the U.S. each day, or a little under 50K funerals a week, now being moved online.

David Berendes, an epidemiologist with the CDC, noted the CDC understood this move does place some hardship on families and friends looking to celebrate the lives of loved ones, but that limiting gatherings to 10 people or fewer and practicing social distancing is, at this point, the best defense against the COVID-19 virus available.

“For example, if live-streaming and limiting in-person attendance to immediate family is possible, we encourage that. Additionally, promoting social distancing at the event, regardless of size, and promoting hand hygiene as well is also important,”  Berendes noted.

Still, for families and attendees, the experience has not exactly received ringing endorsements.

“It was sad that my grandmother, a woman known for her love of large gatherings, parties and get-togethers, would have her final service be in front of only 10 of her loved ones. It was sad that even with today’s technology it was so difficult to hear her eulogy, and it was sad knowing we couldn’t share those final moments together as a family,” Garrett Galindo told CNN Business of attending his first digital funeral.

“It was more like an online conversation than anything else, although appropriate religious ceremonies were performed at the cemetery,” Plymouth State University Lecturer Thomas Good wrote on LinkedIn of his cousin’s wife’s digital ceremony.

And while some like Galindo noted that they were aware that something was better than nothing, and did report being grateful for the ability to have been able to have been “there” for at least some portion of his grandmother’s funeral, mostly the entire ordeal has been more upsetting than comforting.

"It's hard to feel a part of anything when you're sitting at home."

And while a funeral is an extreme case for obvious reasons, that sentiment does seem to be recurring across some digitization efforts that are perhaps falling a bit flat with audiences. For some things, it seems you really did have to be there.

Brands are hosting digital dinner parties, online group cooking classes (with embedded shopping lists that one can easily order online ahead of class), online dance parties, online tarot deck reading sessions and live-streamed college commencements with speakers and diplomas streamed live from the stage but without students in attendance to receive them.  Today (March 26), U.C. Berkeley students are voting as to whether or not they will graduate online and on time, or postpone graduation ceremonies entirely until the crisis has passed and they can actually do it in person.

Among students polled so far, no one is leaning for the streamed version.

“Our entire semester’s already been moved online, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control,” said senior Paula Jeng, “so to have something special like graduation minimized to an online performance would feel insensitive.”

Because for all the things we have learned to do digitally in the last few week, the reality is that some things — like one’s grandmother’s funeral or college graduation — really can’t be quite so easily replicated digitally.

For some things, you just kind of had to be there.



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