The shifting of daily life online has been one of the most far-reaching consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. While it is not without its challenges, broad-based digitalisation has helped governments around the world to combat Covid-19, as well as created new growth opportunities for private companies.
A widely shared meme repeats the same image of a person sitting in front of a computer under a series of different headings: working, studying, watching TV, socialising and so on. For many, indeed, this has been the reality of 2020.
As the extent and gravity of the pandemic became clear in the early part of the year, most governments imposed some form of lockdown, typically involving a series of measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.
For example, many countries imposed international travel bans, moved all forms of teaching online, shuttered non-essential businesses, imposed total or partial curfews and, where possible, encouraged employees to work remotely.
The extent of such measures varied, as did the public responses to these government strategies. Nonetheless, there were a number of common outcomes – including the rapid and far-reaching adoption of digital solutions.
As lockdowns kicked in and offices closed, many people began working from home. Companies aimed to maintain operations as far as possible by using a combination of cloud-based resources and video conferencing apps – such as US-based Zoom, whose stock price has seen remarkable gains this year.
Many businesses found that, while the new approach was born out of necessity, it brought with it various benefits – such as a reduction in rental overheads – and did not unduly lower productivity. Some workers also found silver linings in the new arrangements, including savings on the time and costs associated with commuting.
ICT solutions have been key to this. Now, with much of the world immersed in another round of lockdowns, working from home has become the new normal for many.
This is not without its pitfalls, however. Concerns have been raised that remote workers collaborate less efficiently, missing out on both planned and unplanned ‘face time’, for which – some argue – digital connectivity is a poor substitute.
Furthermore, working from home can be particularly problematic in high-density domestic settings, which characterise a number of emerging economies. For example, Oman averages eight members per household, while Algeria and Bahrain each average 5.9.
In addition, many emerging economies suffer from underdeveloped ICT infrastructure. However, coronavirus-related disruptions in some cases stimulated efforts to address this issue.
In April a World Economic Forum report predicted that the pandemic would “catalyse sustained collaboration between the public and private sectors to increase internet access beyond the current crisis”. This prediction has been borne out in many quarters.
Emerging economies that have benefitted from responsive policies to address internet connectivity shortfalls include Tunisia, which saw mobile network operators allocate emergency spectrum in the early stages of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, private telecoms operators around the world contributed to closing digital access gaps. For example, Senegal’s Sonatel – in which Orange holds a controlling stake – increased bandwidth speed and offered corporate clients 3 GB of mobile data, valid for one month and free of charge, and also enabled students to claim a free 1-GB pass to access educational content.
Notwithstanding such measures, it remains to be seen how sustainable remote working will prove once the pandemic has subsided. Many anticipate that a flexible, ‘blended’ approach will prevail, with office workers dividing their time between working from home and attending a scaled-back brick-and-mortar workplace.
In light of this, co-working spaces could be an increasingly popular phenomenon globally. In the Philippines, for example, co-working spaces are emerging as a solution for firms seeking to decentralise while also ensuring a sound operating environment for employees.
“The pandemic has led to an emphasis on flexibility in terms of workstations and work-from-home solutions,” Lars Wittig, country manager of Regus and Spaces by IWG, told OBG in October.
“When the pandemic is over, people will no longer want to go to crowded downtown areas and, as such, suburban and provincial areas will see the most significant growth. At the same time, many large companies are looking to complement headquarters with satellite offices near employees’ homes – a trend that is likely to benefit co-working spaces.”
As well as offices, most countries closed educational facilities soon after the pandemic first struck, requiring all teaching to be delivered online.
This gave rise to a steep learning curve as authorities and teachers quickly implemented an ICT-based strategy. One common solution was to pre-record some content, which students could process in their own time, and combine that with video-conferencing software.
Bahrain was among those countries that saw a rapid and effective uptake of e-learning solutions. The bulk of this was carried out through a dedicated electronic education portal, which was set up by the Ministry of Education and the Bahrain Information and eGovernment Authority, in conjunction with cloud computing platform Amazon Web Services.
Elsewhere, the telcos Bahrain Telecommunications Company and Zain Bahrain announced that eligible customers would be able to browse designated educational websites without being charged for data use.
However, various challenges related to e-learning have only partially been surmounted in many emerging economies. These include insufficient digital preparedness among some teachers and students, as well as connectivity issues.
Thus, while the shift to virtual learning has on the whole been well managed and well-received, further investment and policy initiatives are required – including digital literacy training for both students and educators, and the establishment of national guidelines and standards to govern the digital space.
In parallel to this, access must be improved – for example, through the provision of laptops and tablets, and the establishment of more Wi-Fi hotspots.
Apps and digital platforms
With the pandemic severely curtailing most aspects of everyday life, various ICT-oriented solutions have emerged. Many of these have been reactive, aimed at filling gaps or meeting shortfalls. Others, however, point to new approaches – many of which look set to continue expanding, even after Covid-19 has been brought under control.
In Morocco, for example, a wide range of processes from local government bureaucracy to Customs procedures shifted online, while ICT platforms were also used to provide government support to people without a social security number.
In March, meanwhile, the country’s Ministry of Health launched an app for doctors and medical staff to pool expertise. Parallel to this, engineers, entrepreneurs and technicians launched a digital platform called Ingénierie VS COVID19MAROC (Engineering versus COVID-19, Morocco), also designed to share expertise across their respective fields.
In other cases, existing digital service providers have adapted their offerings in response to the pandemic, including South-east Asia’s super apps – Indonesia’s Gojek and the Singapore-headquartered Grab.
While the pandemic has led to the reorganisation of operations and closure of some low-profit or high-contact services, it has ultimately cemented the super-apps’ prominence.
In particular, food and grocery delivery services generally capitalized on pandemic-related challenges, with demand increasing significantly as consumers sought to adhere to social distancing guidelines and avoid crowded markets and stores.
On the back of rising food delivery orders and a fall in ride-hailing demand, Grab’s two-year-old food delivery platform overtook its established transport service as the company’s main business line during 2020.In addition, both Gojek and Grab rapidly expanded their financial services into point-of-sale and online payments, and built on other offerings such as insurance services and business loans for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Another field in which apps have played an important role during Covid-19 is medicine. To take a representative example, the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) worked with the Ministry of Public Health in developing a series of new digital platforms. QCRI launched an online self-assessment application – in an effort to reduce pressure on the country’s health system – that educates users on the symptoms of Covid-19, and advises them when to seek medical help.
Elsewhere, Indonesian telemedicine firm Halodoc partnered with Gojek and other public and private firms to offer Covid-19 consultations with doctors online, followed by the delivery of treatment direct to their homes.
In South Africa, meanwhile, the University of Cape Town produced a tracking app – called Covi-ID – that has been specifically tailored to local contexts. The software produces a personalised QR code that enables users to be tracked and traced in case of infection. This code can also be printed out by those without a smartphone or internet coverage.
Banking and fintech
Perhaps one of the more seismic shifts brought about by the pandemic was related to digital banking.
With purchases and transactions increasingly moving away from cash and towards digital channels during the coronavirus period, both central banks and private institutions around the world have continued to explore the potential of mobile banking and financial technology (fintech).
For example, in Kenya the central bank waived fees for financial transactions completed via mobile banking, while in Myanmar the government sought, where possible, to distribute one-off payments to vulnerable citizens through local digital platforms such as Wave Money and OnePay. Meanwhile, Trinidad & Tobago saw a marked increase in the uptake of fintech solutions as a direct result of the pandemic.
On a more expansive note, it was announced in June that Africa would receive a total of $50bn from the World Bank over the following 15 months towards its economic recovery. The bank identified the protection of SMEs as essential to its economic bounce-back from the coronavirus.
The continent’s SMEs were particularly hard hit by the pandemic. However, fintech solutions have helped these businesses overcome Covid-19-related challenges – principally by enabling digital transactions and facilitating fast and convenient access to credit.
The World Bank thus encouraged Africa to invest in digital technology, through the introduction of new digital platforms, the installation of digital infrastructure, the development of digital skills and the establishment of an enabling regulatory environment.
Such initiatives are just one of the ways in which digital solutions developed during the pandemic can result in lasting, positive change around the world.
A digital future
The acceleration of digitalisation and the widespread uptake of ICT-based solutions have helped emerging economies to weather the ongoing storm induced by the coronavirus pandemic. These adaptations have also demonstrated the broad-based benefits of technology for governments, companies and individuals.
While numerous challenges remain, including poor connectivity and the increased risk of cybercrime, many are tentatively hailing expanded digitalisation as one of the few positives to have emerged from the pandemic.