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

The Southeast Asia (SEA) region has been no exception to these novel trends. As such, Covid-19 has accelerated 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 – 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 the 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 that has not been touched by this digital wave. For instance, the pandemic has brought about growth in the edtech sector as students are now required to take online classes. However, technology has played the most vital role in helping the governments of these states manage the Covid-19 crisis better.

A look at the key technology applications that came to the fore during the pandemic and the adoption trends observed in major countries of the SEA 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 SEA nations in an effort to break the chain early, 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 has 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 self-report their symptoms and seek online consultation. To this end, the use of online symptom reporting platforms and mobile applications have emerged as an important trend in Southeast Asia. These services can be rapidly deployed to provide advice to people showing symptoms, as well as serve as referrals for further medical investigation.

Creating citizen awareness

Another use case of technology in the Covid times has been creating applications to make citizens more aware and informed about Covid-19 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 SEA region. These digital solutions and online communication channels have been used to make the case reporting data accessible and transparent.

Support for government authorities

Another area that has been explored by SEA countries to curb the Covid menace is adoption of 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 public places, thus helping them to take a 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 soon.

Aid distribution

A lot of non-profit organisations and governments across SEA nations have come up with mobile applications that streamline 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 impacted industries have been introduced in some SEA countries. While such platforms already existed earlier, the Covid-19 pandemic has further accelerated their adoption. This application domain is expected to develop further, to address some of the current challenges faced during the roll-out of such social programmes during the pandemic.

Country-wise adoption

The on-ground implementation of technologies across the SEA region has helped countries mitigate various challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, the University Malaya Medical Centre, a public Malaysian hospital, deployed big data to predict the number of Covid-19 test kits and masks needed ahead of time. Further, the government also deployed various internet of things (IoT)-based solutions to accelerate the measures against Covid-19. This included smart thermal detection devices, a surveillance network and other IoT-based healthcare delivery applications. Industry experts have opined that IoT has the potential to be a powerful tool to manage the Covid-19 pandemic, owing to its scalability aspect 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 have been launched in the country, which are serving different use cases. For instance, platforms have been created that track infected people or those individuals requested to self-quarantine. This enables health authorities to easily monitor the situation. In addition, some companies and institutes have 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 enlisting 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, which helps people self-assess whether they have contracted Covid-19 and tracks people who travelled from “at-risk” countries that require self-quarantine. In another initiative by the government, the 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 going to hospitals by enabling them to talk to doctors online, which could help reduce the chance of contracting Covid-19. This initiative is 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, which separately play a role in screening patients, giving basic medical advice, teleconsulting, conducting diagnoses, providing patient-care systems and arranging medical logistics.

As can be inferred from the aforementioned examples, start-ups are playing a critical role in the digitalisation ecosystem. At present, over 30 start-ups in Thailand are working on technology that supports social distancing.

Singapore too has been actively taking digitalisation initiatives aimed at addressing some of the challenges that came to the fore amidst the global 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. Meanwhile, GovTech has also launched Covid-19 chatbots to help citizens stay abreast of any new Covid-19-related developments. Moreover, in an innovative effort, SPOT, a four-legged robot, has been developed with the  aim 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 for which GovTech is developing digital operations smart services (DOSS) software capabilities.

The way forward

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

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

As such, this digital shift in the way of working is expected to outlast the pandemic. This will, in a way, redefine the manner in which governments and citizens operate across the SEA region.

By Diksha Sharma