8 March, 2021

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Seeing Sri Lanka Through ‘Google Trends’ In 2020

By Tharosa M. Rajaratne and Dr. Nalin S. Gama-Arachchige –

Undeniably, the COVID-19 pandemic evolved into becoming the chief governing factor behind all human activities worldwide during the year 2020. This unanticipated turn of events ultimately instigated a paradigm shift in the social sphere to what is known as the ‘new normal’. From an ideal standpoint, it is evident that this new normal will remain as is in the foreseeable future. At present, Sri Lanka is facing the second wave of the COVID19 pandemic, with a total case count exceeding 60,000; becoming the 139th out of 211 countries and territories, in terms of cases per million citizens. The ‘new normal’ is characterized by adaptations and setbacks of citizens. Thus this article intends to analyze the social reflexes of Sri Lanka, shown in to various sociological aspects, by means of Google Search Trends during the first year under the COVID19 pandemic.

Google is the search engine of most electronic devices by default, and also the most preferred among the internet users of Sri Lanka. The Google search data encompass the search queries requested on YouTube, Google Images, and Google News. Since all the search queries are recorded based on location, frequency, and time, the relationship between contemporary world events and their corresponding social reflexes can be built along a timeline, i.e. trends, in this case, during the year 2020. The internet certainly plays an active role in the new normal situation essentially to comply with the novel social etiquettes. The Google Search trends related to Social awareness, Healthcare, Economy, Self-care, and Education sectors provide a useful insight into investigation of the social behavior with COVID-19.

Awareness and Healthcare

A considerable cohort of internet users accesses the internet for awareness purposes. This includes the recurrent use of the Google Search Engine to follow news updates on isolated or ongoing incidents. The search terms Coronavirus and COVID and their immediate word derivatives elucidate valuable information concerning the initial reaction to the pandemic. The following figure presents evidence of the relative search interest of the Sri Lankan citizens of the terms Corona, Coronavirus, and COVID.

Figure 1 – Relative Search Interest of the terms Coronavirus, Corona, and COVID

According to Figure-1, several surges in the Google search volume can be seen along the timeline, notably following major outbreak incidents that took place in January, March, July, and October 2020: the first Positive Case within Sri Lanka, First Wave, Lockdown, Kandakāḍu Outbreak, and Second Wave, respectively. The overall popularity and the concern regarding the pandemic had reached its peak during the 50-day lockdown, followed by a rapid decline until the outset of the second wave in October. The official designation of the disease (i.e. COVID19) was not present until 22nd February 2020, and this void has been adequate for the generic term Coronavirus to be consolidated within the urban dialect until the start of the second wave. Despite the concern and the popularity regarding the pandemic has shifted away from the spotlight at present, the trends suggest that more internet users now use the word COVID over the generic term Coronavirus. Search volumes of the most prevalent locations related to the pandemic, coincide with each major outbreak incident stated above: China, Italy, Kandakāḍu, and Brandix respectively. The concern about the disease from a geographical standpoint also shows a similar declining trend.

Search requests relating to death (mortality), and symptoms have also surged similarly. Figure-2 evidences the much-anticipated surge of search requests due to the novelty of the situation during the first wave. Although the majority of COVID19 attributed deaths took place during the second wave, the popularity concerning mortality-related search requests crowned in late March, after the very first COVID19 attributed death recorded in Sri Lanka on 28th March. The interest then plummeted down to pre-first-wave levels by as early as June and it continued to maintain a fair plateau to this day. In contrast, the general interest around the search term Symptoms remains at a higher level during the same period, and also a noticeable increase is seen during the second wave in contrast to the search terms related to mortality. Fair reasoning can be built as to the civilians who have started to maintain a resilient stance towards the pandemic while raising their self-awareness about the disease, or have moved past the imminent dangers of the pandemic in a rather negligent manner. Apart from the aforementioned examples, notable terms such as Quarantine, Lockdown, and Hand sanitizer have followed a similar trend to that of Death, whereas the terms Face masks and Curfew have followed a similar trend to that of Symptoms.

Figure 2 – Relative Search Interest of the terms Death, and Symptoms

Economy

The escalation of the online grocery shopping and delivery and a considerable shift from conventional shopping behavior was much predicted by the turn of the pandemic, as many countries encouraged the citizens to shift to buying online. However, Google Trends and actual evidence regarding this matter demonstrate that Sri Lanka has shown a very repulsive stance. The search interest around online grocery shopping and delivery services only began to skyrocket with the very onset of the lockdown and completely vanished by the end of the lockdown. The reason for this particular behavior can be explained by the unsatisfactory customer experiences (such as packaging defective products and expensive substitutes against customers’ consent, and hidden charges etc.) and the lack of proper technical infrastructure (such as reliable and responsive hotlines, websites, and mobile apps), that were seen throughout the online shopping. Hence, online shopping was only perceived as a survival stunt but not as a sustainable alternative, and it sufficiently reinforced the customers’ necessity of resorting to the conventional ‘visiting and buying yourself’ shopping methods at the earliest. 

The concern regarding telecommunication and internet services (specifically data packages and free data) during the lockdown period, has recorded an all-time-high within a five-year window, likely as a response to the increased data consumption among individuals to access various online services during the lockdown.

It is no revelation that the lockdown period created an unavoidable financial turmoil that led to reduced liquidity, increased bankruptcy and unemployment. The search trends and evidence relating to Bank Loans, Interest Rates, and Fixed Deposits reveal that individuals have pursued financial assistance and aid, to re-stabilize their economic state after the lockdown period. Similarly, the search trends around Real Estate sales have also surged in the same period, indicating growth in reinvestment schemes.

Figure 3 – Average Search Interest of the terms Loans, Fixed Deposits, and Interest Rates

Self-care

It is fair to state that although citizens had an ample amount of time to spend with themselves, upon imposing restrictions on mobility and social interactions, the number of activities to engage with at one’s residence would rapidly thin out. Consequently, the notion of monotony has increased resulting in a considerable amount of psychological distress within individuals during the lockdown period. Hence, a growing interest in discovering novel coping mechanisms has been shown among individuals.

The usage of the internet to discover novel and trivial activities to keep oneself occupied has therefore been extraordinarily increased during the lockdown period. Trend data suggest that people have shown elevated levels of interest in searching for instructions (i.e. ‘How to’) to perform certain tasks themselves. Culinary-related search requests (Recipes) can be seen as one such highly searched topic. Also, a noticeable increase in fitness (Exercise, workout) related searches, has been seen during the same period. A growth of interest around pastime activities involving screen time has also been recorded. Search requests relating to common online pastime activities: Memes, Films, TV Series, Computer Games, and Online Streaming Services (e.g. Netflix) have peaked during the lockdown (See Figure-4), followed by a reasonable decline until a passive increase during the start of the second wave. Interest in Instant Messaging applications (particularly WhatsApp) has seen a continuous increase until the end of the year, owing to the ability to perform audio/video calls with a single or a group of individuals with ease. Making video calls with one’s cherished companions quickly became a popular pastime activity to battle social and psychological isolation.

Figure 4 – Average Search Interest in Common Online Pastime Activities

The notorious status concerning the search frequency of the word sex among Sri Lankans is also a case in point. The word sex holds the undisputed title of being the most searched word in the recorded history of the internet in Sri Lanka – since 2004. A notable increase in searches relating to pornographic material is recorded during the lockdown. Partly, this increase can be reasoned as a response to the growing distress caused by restrictions imposed on mobility which deterred individuals (whose partners cannot be reached) from engaging in consensual physical relationships on casual or illegitimate grounds. 

Education

The concept of the New Normal was brought forward in mid-2020, as a novel social code that encourages civilians to resume their day-to-day activities while taking precautionary measurements to mitigate the spread of the virus. Many of the countries were keen to embrace this principle at the earliest, however, due to inherent limitations in technological infrastructure in Sri Lanka, the New Normal commenced on a limping leg.

Standalone Figure – A Year in Google Search, 2020, Sri Lanka.

Education was undoubtedly the most affected sector during the lockdown. The very proliferative nature of the disease caused the entire education sector to shut down handing no viable solution to hand. However, the experience that had gained in the discipline of distance and continuous learning methods conducted by various countries over the years, brought the necessity of hauling the education system into the e-learning spectacle worldwide instead of keeping time hoping for the pandemic to thin out any sooner. Sri Lanka, where digitalization is seen as an evil influence, and also due to the unevenness of the availability of technical infrastructure in the country, has maintained a backward stance in this matter. 

The digitalization of education mainly brought video conferencing (video calls) and the usage of online classroom modules to the limelight. The adaptation to the e-learning system at first was greatly discouraged due to the inconsiderate data package subscription method (quota-based) in Sri Lanka.

Figure 5 – Relative Search Interest in Major e-Learning and Video Conferencing Platforms.

Since video conferencing consumes a lot of ‘data’, the existing internet packages were insufficient and often reached the allocated quota within the first few days of the billing month. This led to decreased productivity for the rest of the month, and individuals were often compelled to buy extra data. The majority of the countries worldwide shifted from the quota-based to the speed-based internet subscription method years ago in favor of undisrupted internet services. Even to this day, Sri Lankan internet service providers have not shifted to the consumer-friendly alternative.  

This issue ultimately instigated growing unrest among university students and employees who were obliged to attend online lectures and meetings. A temporary solution was arranged for university students by exempting data charges for video conferences by feeding the online link to an intermediate body named the LEARN (Lanka Education and Research Network). This rather inconvenient and complicated series of solutions pushed the adaptation curve out of the lockdown. However, according to Figure-5, the e-learning trend shows a mirrored pattern to that of the trends presented above, i.e. more individuals have started to prefer and utilize online conferencing methods with the onset of the second wave. 

These means of digitalization effectively have shed light on a previously undiscovered platform available for the Sri Lankan education system – online tutoring services. Despite the bothersome internet subscription packages, online tutoring has started to show promising growth across all demographics – from kindergarten to tertiary level education. The utilization of video viewing platforms (mainly YouTube) and Instant Messaging applications (such as Telegram), have enabled tutors to record and share tutoring sessions, which then can be viewed by each student with uncompromised clarity, at a time for their liking, for an unlimited amount of successions. Also, the accessibility to a wider number of vivid study materials (e.g. photographs, videos, animations, etc.) has aided in closing both apparent and metaphorical distance between the student and the tutor. Although the growing e-Learning realm is criticized by traditional academicians for being a rather inefficient and unsuccessful teaching method, it has opened doors to novel study materials and learning methods (especially online certificate and diploma courses offered by renowned foreign academic institutes) that are incompatible with the conventional education system and made a step closer to student-centered learning. The conference culture underwent a paradigm shift virtually overnight following the realization of the superiority in terms of convenience and economy of organizing virtual seminars also known as ‘Webinars’, as opposed to conventional ‘physical’ gatherings.       

Conclusion

Sri Lanka, as other nations too, has completed a year dealing with the COVID19 pandemic. Exorbitant fees, inconvenient infrastructure, and fraudulent practices that were seen in the e-commerce sector have contributed greatly to blemishing the first impression to the majority of the citizens. In contrast, novelties such as e-Learning, video conferencing have shown a promising paradigm shift in the education system. The reliability and convenience in accessing and utilizing online services, have become the veiled metric behind the degree of adaptability to the new normal. In essence, while setbacks in technology and infrastructure still exist, Sri Lankan citizens in general have shown a warmer and a prompt approach towards adapting to the new normal. 

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    ”….Sri Lankan citizens in general have shown a warmer and a prompt approach towards adapting to the new normal ..” Really?

    Contrary to the graphs in the article, the second wave in Europe with Brazilian & South African mutations, was much deadlier (over 100,000 deaths to date in UK) with even young people getting infected & the virus spreading faster but maybe its different in SL. A concern in UK & much debated is the closure of schools, e-learning very much being limited to Universities. Many families in UK do not have a computer but even with refurbished computers donated to those families by the govt, & charities, they still can’t afford broadband. Is SL any better with e-learning?
    I understand that some of the senior management of Sri Lankan Air were infected with the virus after a meeting because of an infected pilot among the attendees. If this was true, Sri Lankan Air doesn’t seem to have that prompt approach towards adapting to the new normal.

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