A Year of Challenges, Progress and Gratitude
By Dr. Darren Wilkins | 0886703789\0777129092 | [email protected]
We have reached the end of yet another year. No, it has not been just “ANOTHER YEAR”. It been a challenging year; a year that “ushered” in a pandemic that many of us did not envision would bring the entire world to its knees, killing hundreds of thousands of people while affecting millions.
The pandemic called COVID-19 pandemic, also known as the Coronavirus pandemic, is an ongoing pandemic of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by the transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. The outbreak was initially reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 30, 2019 and declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in January 2020. On March 11, 2020 the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Since that time, the disease has been spreading, AD INFINITUM.
On the 16th of March 2020, Liberia announced its first case of COVID-19. That event triggered a myriad of activities in Liberia including the introduction, application and requirement of new health protocols referred to as the “New Normal.” One of the activities involved in the “New Normal” is “Social Distancing”. Others involved a shift in paradigm in the way many things were done in our way of living. With the new normal of social distancing, the world (including Liberia) needed new means of getting things done.
Meeting of global leaders, the President’s cabinet meetings, meetings of the both Houses (Senate and Representatives), the (The Judiciary), meetings of national security officials, academia, et al, had to be done remotely. Subsequently, like the rest of the world, Liberia turned to Information and Communications Technology (ICT). ICTs which had been downplayed, if not ignored by some leaders prior to COVID-19, became the solution and the way to keep the world running. Presidents across the world, doctors, policy and decision makers, all turned to technologies like videoconferencing, chat, instant messaging (ZOOM, MS Teams, WhatsApp, Facebook, twitter), etc. The internet became the primary medium for EVERYTHING. Data to access the internet became the new OXYGEN. And with the internet, despite the Pandemic, the world kept running!
The world turned to ICTs to ensure continuity in all sectors while taking into consideration the new normal of social distancing. For example, in the Education sector, institutions of learning (Primary to Tertiary) were closed by the end of March 2020. Subsequently, educational leaders around the world met and decided that to ensure continuity in teaching and learning in the wake of the uncertainties surrounding the Pandemic, a solution was required. And so, they turned to eLearning as a solution, particularly, online learning. With this solution came three major traditional challenges, especially for developing nations: the lack of infrastructure (Electricity, Internet connectivity, etc), human capacity and lack of technology devices. Electricity and internet access evidently were the “CONDITIO SINE QUA NON” for online learning. Faculty and students who had little, or no internet knowledge, were now required to become computer-literate in a jiffy in order to teach and learn on online. And then, there was the issue of technology devices: computers, laptops, tablets, smart phones (lack thereof), etc.
Faced with these challenges, countries around the world had two choices: DO NOTHING AND WAIT UNTIL THE END OF COVID-19 (an unpredictable phenomenon at the time), or DO SOMETHING WITH THE WHATEVER THEY HAD. The world chose the latter ostensibly because no one could predict the outcome of the Pandemic.
In Liberia, some of our institutions of learning, primarily tertiary institutions, decided to follow the rest of the world to deliver education online despite the nations own unique challenges. Institutions like AME University, Starz, Bluecrest, Adventist University of West Africa (AUWA), and our own flagship and the largest university in the nation, the University of Liberia, decided to shift the teaching and learning paradigm by going “online”.
For the University of Liberia, online learning seemed impossible considering its history, culture and challenges. Even though online learning was initiated and was to be piloted during the administration of former UL president Dr. Ophelia I. Weeks, that initiative was merely for a small group of selected staff and students. It was not intended for the entire University population any time soon. Yet, the advent of COVID-19 forced the unforeseen and unthinkable!
With a newly appointed President (Dr. Julius J.S. Nelson), 2500 faculty and staff and 20,000 students with little or no computer knowledge, an ICT Department that was still in its infancy, a challenging infrastructure, cost-prohibitive data packages and technology devices, the UL set out achieve what seemed absolutely impossible. And then, through unprecedented leadership, teamwork, dedication, hard work, the collective and creative genius of the University community, the UL was able to turn its challenges into opportunities. And so, on 28 July 2020 at about 12:01 A.M., the UL began its first “eLearning Semester” to the astonishment of the world, making history yet again!
During the year in review, Liberia’s ICT sector experienced another crucial “event”. In the wake of COVID-19 when the use of the internet became the primary means of doing business, Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) or GSM companies decided to increase the cost of data packages (the new OXYGEN). According to MNOs or GSM companies, the increase in prices was in response to a new “REGULATION” put in place by the REGULATOR, the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA). The decision to increase the prices of data packages sparked a national ballyhoo that led both the REGULATED (MNOs) and the REGULATOR (LTA) to go back to the table and find a solution that reversed the previous decisions by the REGULATED.
Despite the many tragedies caused, COVID-19 brought a lot of changes. It brought about the GENESIS of our EXODUS from a situation in which tradition kept clashing with modernity in several sectors. And while there seems to be hope on the horizons with news of vaccine for COVID-19, lessons learned from the Pandemic will bring more development to all sectors for the good of Liberia and the world. More focus will be placed on the use of ICTs for development (ICT4D), ICT for Survival (ICT4S) and ICT for the Future (ICT4F).
In Liberia, if any of what I just mentioned is to be achieved, better and relevant ICT policies MUST be developed (Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications), better regulations MUST be put in place in favor of the masses and national development (LTA), the necessary infrastructure MUST be put in place (LIBTELCO and Operators), and better policies and strategies to build human capacity MUST be put in place (Ministry of Education and Academia). Otherwise, that clash between tradition and modernity will endure in all sectors of the nation.
Finally, I mentioned in the heading that this too is a year of “GRATITUDE”. We must be grateful to God for bringing us this far. We must be grateful to global leaders for their leadership, especially our President Dr. George M. Weah, and other national leaders. We must be grateful to leaders of all sectors especially the Ministers of Health, Finance and Education. We must be grateful to our doctors, nurses and health care providers. We must be grateful to our educational leaders, especially the President of the University of Liberia, Dr. Julius J.S. Nelson Jr., who in my opinion, “wagered” his presidency on a new paradigm (relatively new to UL) in such challenging times. Dr. Nelson’s “Liberia first” philosophy eclipsed the need to protect his newly appointed position; something only a few would do in Liberia. But, more importantly, we must be grateful to the entire Liberian population for standing this test of time. We are a resilient people and we are tough. The road has not been as smooth as we had envisioned; it has indeed been rocky. But with lessons learned, perseverance and hard work, we will come out of this global pandemic and become a better, if not DIGITAL LIBERIA.
Until next week, please do have a HAPPY and PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR.