Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Tech tips and tricks to cope with coronavirus social isolation measures

Updated: From maintaining your friendships to helping out the elderly, technology can help.

The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, continues to spread and cause chaos worldwide. 

Medical systems are under pressure, travel restrictions and border closures are in play, panic buying is cleaning stores out of stock and revealing some of humanity's worst, most selfish aspects, and countries are disparate in how they are attempting to control what the World Health Organization (WHO) has now called a pandemic

At the time of writing, there are 183,000 diagnosed cases with over 7,000 fatalities across 155 countries. The worst affected, at present, are China, Italy, Iran, Spain, and South Korea, with case numbers climbing in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

The situation cannot be ignored -- as highlighted when Ireland closed all pubs ahead of St. Patrick's Day, a major event on the country's calendar -- and some countries are now practicing similar means of social distancing in an attempt to prevent hospitals from being overloaded. 

TechRepublic: How open source might prove helpful during the coronavirus pandemic

The UK Prime Minister has recommended that citizens do not visit pubs, theaters, or restaurants; cities across the US have closed venues, and lockdowns are in place across Italy and Spain. Generally, the advice is to work from home when possible -- but this is not an option for many. 

However, what is now considered a crisis for public health is not all doom-and-gloom. 

Facebook groups, telephone services, and community initiatives have sprung up in their droves to connect those in self-isolation due to illness, age, or disability with others willing to help with supplies or just general contact. 

A couple I know, with a very young child, was recently diagnosed with "mild" cases of COVID-19, including fevers, both phlegm-based and dry coughs, chest pain, headaches, nausea, exhaustion, as well as "strange" sinus and kidney pain that has lasted several weeks. The couple said that the government was being "too quiet" on the subject, but they were immediately inundated with online messages of support and offers of assistance after they revealed the diagnosis. 

Measures for suppression, rather than containment, do have knock-on effects. Maintaining physical health is important but home isolation can also have consequences for mental well-being.

CNET: Uber suspends shared rides to limit coronavirus spread, report says

Technology may be able to help bridge the gap, considering we do not know when the novel coronavirus strain will run its course and both the global economy and our lives will -- in theory -- be back to business as usual. 

Below are some ways that tech can help us deal with home isolation, lockdowns, and maintaining communication with others who need it most. 

Hang out online

If the usual Friday night down the pub is no longer an option, have you considered setting up a Google Hangout, Skype call, or FaceTime group as an alternative? Pick a time, connect, crack open your bottle of wine at home and catch up. 

Care packages

If you are unable to leave home but need to get a package urgently to someone, there are online options including Parcel Hero and Task Rabbit

A note through the letterbox

A print-at-home postcard created by Becky Wass has gone viral. You fill in your details, including your phone number, and pop it through a letterbox. If the vulnerable need help they have your contact details, but alternatively, this is also potentially a way to forge local connections for friendly texting and phone calls. 

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Local groups connected online 

Websites are springing up, including Covidmutualaid.org, that are providing lists of local social media groups formed to help those with the respiratory illness. These forums -- across social media platforms including Facebook and WhatsApp -- include offers of shopping help, free emergency home services, and there are also many people who are simply happy to pick up the phone and call you if you simply want to hear another person's voice. 

Remote PC software

While it may take a long and amusing phone call to set up -- such as in the case of my grandmother -- creating a remote connection to an elderly relative's PC or mobile device can ensure that lines of communication are not broken and you are on hand to help, even if you cannot be there in more than spirit. 

Also: RemotePC is on sale for $3 and lets you control two computers from home 

Remote management software includes LogMeIn, TeamViewer, and RemotePC. Once installed on two devices destined to be connected, you can control PCs remotely and so can be on hand to resolve any problems. In my case, I've used TeamViewer to clean up my relative's PC, fix Internet issues, and help with online shopping -- the latter of which may be of the most interest in self-isolation cases.  

Indoor security cameras

A prospect that has to be handled with sensitivity, installing indoor security cameras may be an option when elderly relatives have conditions that are a worry, such as Alzheimer's, especially if measures such as the UK's potential self-isolation for the over 70's come into play. If these devices are used -- such as Ring indoor cameras or Nest Cams -- this can allow you to check-in remotely and without exposing others to potential infection.  

Video doorbells could be worth considering before a lockdown, too, if you are worried that vulnerable relatives could become victims of coronavirus-related doorstep scams.

Family reminders 

Going without seeing loved ones for extended periods of time may be difficult. Digital photo frames, such as those developed by Nixplay, could help. You can load them up with an array of photos, send them off, and then family members can simply plug-and-play. 

E-books 

There's little better than becoming absorbed in a good book from time to time, and if you are now staying inside during the evenings, ordering in an e-book reader, such as a Kindle, can give you more than enough reading material to keep you occupied. 

Alternatively, if money is -- or is likely to become -- tight, download an e-book reading app and download public domain, free e-books (many of which can be found at Project Gutenberg). 

See also: How coronavirus COVID-19 is accelerating the future of workHHS targeted by hackers as it responds to novel coronavirus, COVID-19 pandemicCoronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemicCoronavirus tech conference cancellations list: Apple WWDC, Microsoft Build, E3, NAB, Gartner, Dell World and moreWorking in a coronavirus world: Strategies and tools for staying productive

Gaming rings 

If you have a capable PC or are signed up to gaming subscription services such as Google Stadia, consider setting up gaming evenings with friends during the week.  

Watching live streams and joining an online community on Twitch, too, can help you deal with isolation at home. 

TV dongles, subscriptions

To tackle boredom and perhaps keep family members occupied, you might want to consider expanding the range of television content on offer. A TV dongle such as the Fire TV stick or Roku can give you access to more apps, music, television shows, and films, and you could also consider adding family members to existing subscriptions, such as Netflix. 

Also: Best streaming devices of 2020: Apple TV, Roku Ultra, Fire TV Stick, and more 

A mobile phone, tablet, or network setup

Family members without a stable internet connection or Wi-Fi-connected device may miss out on valuable social interaction, especially if they are going to have to self-isolate for long periods of time. You might want to consider setting them up with a cheap device or tablet and mobile internet subscription, even if it is a pay-as-you-go hotspot or temporary contract. 

To make things easier, if you set up a device for others, you could also sign them up with Skype, Facebook, or WhatsApp accounts purely to keep in contact. 

IoT devices

Another option to consider is smart home devices. Products such as Google Home, the Amazon Echo Show, or budget-friendly Echo Dot can be used for news, music, and voice calls. 

Join a virtual tour

If isolation is prompting itchy feet -- or perhaps you have children at home that need entertainment -- a list of virtual tours and live webcams has now gone viral. Over at virtualschoolactivities.com, you can access lists of resources including the Atlanta Zoo panda cam, take a wander through Buckingham Palace, or take a walk across the Great Wall of China, just to name a few. Despite the name, the resources listed will be of interest to more than children. 

Trade going to concerts physically to community-driven virtual options 

Another way to connect with others without placing anyone at risk -- as well as have something to look forward to in the coming weeks -- is to explore virtual events that are springing up. A current example is "Rock the Lock Down," a virtual rock concert proposal that begun in Spain but is rapidly gaining enthusiastic participants. 

Finally, a simple phone call

We are now in the days of email, social media, and texts, but perhaps it's time to return to a more traditional method of communication. Pick up the phone and give your friends and family a call to check in. 


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