Tech Saviour: Digital solutions come to the rescue amidst Covid-19

Southeast Asia as a whole has embraced several digital solutions to meet the challenges Covid-19 highlighted during 2020-2021.

Covid-19 has undeniably wreaked havoc across the world. Economies round the world are now operating under a new normal, one that is characterised by an increased uptake of digital technologies. If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital tools and solutions in sustaining and facilitating the various functions of the economy and the government at a time when remote working and operations have become the norm.

Southeast Asia has been no exception to these trends. As such, Covid-19 has played a key role in speeding up the region’s uptake of digital platforms and technologies. According to a recent report published jointly by Google, Singapore’s Temasek and Bain & Company, around 40 million people from six countries, namely, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam, came online for the first time in 2020.This took the total number of internet users in the region to 400 million, up from 250 million in 2015. The report further highlighted that the size of the region’s internet economy exceeded $100 billion for the first time in 2020 and, if current trends hold, it is set to triple to more than $300 billion by 2025.

From a sectoral point of view too, there is hardly any sector which has not been touched by this digital wave. For instance, the pandemic has brought about growth in the edu-tech sector as students are now required to take online classes. However, the key role of technology has been in helping the governments of these states manage the Covid-19 crisis better.

A look at some of the technology applications that came to the fore during the pandemic and the adoption trend observed in some of the major countries of the Southeast Asian region…

Digital contact tracing: Ever since the pandemic started in early 2020, a key activity undertaken by governments of all states was contact tracing of infected citizens. To this end, various digital contact tracing tools were adopted by Southeast Asian nations in an effort to break the chain early on before the infection spread any further. These tools have had different levels of success across the region.

Self-reporting of symptoms: As mentioned above, early and rapid case identification have been central during the Covid-19 pandemic. While contact tracing is one way to achieve it, the other method has been to enable citizens to selfreport their symptoms and seek online consultation. To this end, the use of online symptom reporting platforms and mobile applications have emerged as important trends in Southeast Asia. These services can be rapidly deployed and provide advice to people showing symptoms as well as make referrals for further medical investigation.

Creating citizen awareness: Another use case of technology during the pandemic has been creating applications to make citizens more aware of and informed about pandemic-related developments. To this end, informational applications providing transparent data about the pandemic situation, locally and globally, emerged as another important category of digital solutions developed in the Southeast Asian region. These digital solutions and online communication channels have been used to make case reporting data accessible and transparent.

Support for government authorities: Another area, which has been explored by Southeast Asian countries to curb the Covid menace, is digital tools such as GIS platforms, agent based modelling, and simulation platforms that help support the work of public authorities. A number of these solutions have emerged in the region, but mostly in countries with established collaboration programmes between scientists and policymakers.

Enabling citizens to make informed decisions: Another use case of technology has been the creation of applications and web platforms that inform citizens about the gathering level at certain public places, thus helping them to take more informed decision about their potential visits. Solution providers usually leverage big data analytics for such applications. While only some countries have deployed such solutions, others can also follow suit.

Aid distribution: A lot of non-profits and governments across these Southeast Asian nations have come up with mobile applications that seek to streamline the distribution of aid and financial support to the urban poor. On similar lines, new online marketplaces and peer-to-peer donation platforms to support local businesses and workers of affected industries have been introduced in some Southeast Asian countries. While such platforms already existed, the Covid-19 outbreak has accelerated their adoption. This application domain is expected to develop further to address some of the current challenges faced in the roll-out of social programmes during the pandemic.

Country-wise adoption

The on-ground implementation of these technologies across the Southeast Asian region has helped countries mitigate the various challenges that have arisen because of the pandemic. For instance, University Malaya Medical Centre, a public Malaysian hospital, deployed big data to predict the number of Covid-19 test kits and masks needed. Further, the government also deployed various IoT-based solutions to step up containment measures against Covid-19. This included smart thermaldetection devices, surveillance networks, and some other IoT-based healthcare delivery applications. Industry experts say that IoT has the potential to be a powerful tool to manage the pandemic owing to its scalability and the automated nature of its solutions.

Like Malaysia, Thailand was also quick to adopt various digital solutions in an effort to manage Covid-19 disruptions. Several platforms that fulfil different needs have been launched in the country. For instance, platforms have been created that track infected people or individuals requesting self-quarantine. This enables health authorities to easily monitor the situation. In addition, some companies and institutes have also created chatbots to offer Covid-19 consultation to the public, created tools that can gauge the volume of masks and sanitisers available, set up communication channels employing ways to combat the disease, etc.

Moreover, according to the National Innovation Agency (NIA), state agencies have worked together and created a new app called DDC-Care that helps people selfassess whether they have contracted Covid-19 and tracks people who travelled from atrisk countries that require self-quarantine. In another initiative by the government, Yothi Medical Innovation District (YMID) and the Technology and Innovation-Based Enterprise Development Fund have fostered a channel where tech start-ups can help patients avoid hospitalisation by enabling them to talk to doctors online to help reduce the chance of contracting the coronavirus. This initiative aimed at reducing the workload of physicians and nurses and make hospitals less crowded. As per industry sources, the YMID has created a collection of 22 health tech start-ups that separately play a role in screening patients, giving basic medical advice, teleconsulting, conducting diagnoses, providing patient care systems and arranging medical logistics.

As the examples cited above show, start-ups play a critical role in the digitalization ecosystem. At present, over 30 start-ups in Thailand are working on technology that supports social distancing.

Singapore too has been actively taking digitalization initiatives to address some of the challenges that came to the fore during the pandemic. The use of the TraceTogether app and SafeEntry system have enabled health authorities to swiftly and effectively conduct contact tracing. While SafeEntry is a national digital check-in system that logs details of individuals visiting public places, TraceTogether is a mobile application that seeks to complement manual contact tracing efforts. Further, GovTech had also launched Covid-19 chatbots to help citizens stay abreast of any new Covid-19-related development. Moreover, in a rather innovative effort, SPOT, a four-legged robot, has been developed to assist in safe distancing measures at parks and deliver essential items such as medicines to patients. The robot was built by Boston Dynamics and is the first robotic platform upon which GovTech is developing digital  perations smart services (DOSS) software capabilities.

The way forward

Going forward, technology uptake is only expected to grow further. The disruptions created by the pandemic have created a new normal and a new order that are here to stay for years to come. Several industry reports have highlighted that as old ways of carrying out ordinary economic activity have been rendered risky, tech deployment on a massive scale is the only solution.

As per the e-Conomy SEA 2020 report, at least one in three digital service consumers began using a new online service due to Covid-19. Of these, 94 per cent said they planned to use these services even when the pandemic is over.

As such, this digital shift in the way of working is expected to outlast the pandemic. This will redefine the way governments and citizens operate across Southeast Asia.