The world is in a race to respond to Covid-19. This pandemic has disrupted societies, and continues to do so. Global economies are faltering; life as we know it has been put on hold. Trade and commerce have adapted, travel is restricted, and how we keep close to our communities and loved ones continually evolves.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that the economic impact of Covid-19 globally will be at least US$1 trillion this year.
In this unprecedented moment, technology is playing a transformative role in the world’s response to Covid-19. Emerging technologies are being developed and deployed at an extraordinary pace. Artificial intelligence (AI), big data and analytics have enabled innovative, rapid and wide-ranging responses to public health and essential-service delivery.
When economies reboot, and we emerge from self-isolation or lockdown, entrepreneurial ideas born on our sofas will need the freedom, space and support to scale up quickly. The next Asian unicorn is probably being hatched in a small town somewhere. Those ideas, big or small, will need the right digital ecosystem that supports an entrepreneurial response to flourish, not to flounder.
Heavily impacted sectors like tourism must be sustained through tough times to retain skills and bolster industry recovery. International cooperation, public-private partnerships, and technology-driven innovation will be essential to support the economic impact of these sectors for the good of all economies.
Across Asia, technology at large is supporting business continuity, delivery of public and social services, information sharing, education, and connection for communities and families, amid significant disruption.
Policy shifts to unlock opportunity
Led by the heroic efforts of essential workers, public health policy is in the process of being altered forever. Technology has played a role in helping stretched public health systems manage caseloads, enabling supply chains, connecting health workers to patients, facilitating telemedicine services for rural and affected communities, and supporting digital health tools.
Governments across Asia are using digital technology to drive parts of their response. In Singapore and South Korea, for example, wide-scale screening, tracing and mapping efforts are finding success in containing transmission. Indonesia has followed this lead, while Malaysia has enabled citizens to assess individual health risks to support monitoring efforts.
Scientists and researchers are navigating voluminous amounts of global health data, securely and at speed using cloud, data analytics and AI. These technologies are also accelerating scientific and medical analysis and experiments that would otherwise take years of human effort. Information sharing, rapid response technology, and access to innovation should become global health assets and not country-specific ones.
Education went from the classroom to the living room overnight. This seismic shift, enabled by the Internet and digital platforms, has helped learning to continue. However, hard questions on Internet access, investment in teachers and the broader role of technology must be asked and answered.
As the physical movement of goods and people becomes increasingly restricted around the world, technology such as cloud is a powerful lower-cost option for small businesses. At the same time, digital e-commerce and ride-hailing platforms are a lifeline for food, medicine and essential services.
With social distancing increasingly practiced globally, working from home is the new norm, enabled by cloud-based videoconferencing services and collaboration tools. Responding to this new paradigm of work will require business, government and community to embrace new practices.
Paramount to ensuring that technology can contribute even more will require governments to rethink digital policies and regulations in order to remove barriers and reduce burdens. This will be critical for key areas like e-commerce, payments, cross-border data flows, security, and privacy. Digital integration is a must.
There will be many competing priorities for government attention, investment and regulation in the months and years ahead. Technology companies are willing to play a critical role in the rebuilding phase. Public-private partnerships must be deepened to enable this.
Some of the necessary measures put in place by governments during the Covid-19 pandemic will need to be re-examined, specifically those related to use of personal data, privacy, surveillance and misinformation. Covid-era policies should be time-limited, proportional, transparent and accountable. In the rebuilding phase, it will be essential that these potentially overreaching measures are put back into the box, and only used in genuinely critical times like these.
Across Asia, there has been a rapid journey of transformation toward more digitized economies. There is universal recognition that digital platforms and services and the Internet spur economic and job growth, create more significant social and economic inclusion, and help bridge the digital divide.
Restarting that journey will be even more critical in the future.