In late 2002, the SARS outbreak led to a tremendous growth of both business-to-business and business-to-consumer online marketplace platforms in China. Similarly, COVID-19 has transformed online shopping from a nice-to-have to a must-have around the world.
Online shopping needs to be supported by a robust logistics system. In-person delivery is not virus-proof. Many delivery companies and restaurants in the UK, Europe and around the world have launched contactless delivery services where goods are picked up and dropped off at a designated location instead of from or into the hands of a person. Chinese e-commerce giants are also ramping up their development of robot deliveries. However, before robot delivery services become prevalent, delivery companies need to establish clear protocols to safeguard the sanitary condition of delivered goods.
Contactless digital payments, either in the form of cards or e-wallets are the recommended payment method to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Digital payments enable people to make online purchases and payments of goods, services and even utility payments, as well as to receive stimulus funds faster.
Contactless digital payments can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep business flowing.
However, according to the World Bank, there are more than 1.7 billion unbanked people, who may not have easy access to digital payments. The availability of digital payments also relies on internet availability, devices and a network to convert cash into a digitalized format.
Many companies have asked employees to work from home. Remote work is enabled by technologies including virtual private networks (VPNs), voice over internet protocols (VoIPs), virtual meetings, cloud technology, work collaboration tools and even facial recognition technologies that enable a person to appear before a virtual background to preserve the privacy of the home. In addition to preventing the spread of viruses, remote work also saves commute time and provides more flexibility.
Will COVID-19 make working from home the norm?
Yet remote work also imposes challenges to employers and employees. Information security, privacy and timely tech support can be big issues, as revealed by recent class actions filed against Zoom. Remote work can also complicate labour law issues, such as those associated with providing a safe work environment and income tax issues. Employees may experience loneliness and lack of work-life balance. If remote work becomes more common after the COVID-19 pandemic, employers may decide to reduce lease costs and hire people from regions with cheaper labour costs.
Laws and regulations must be updated to accommodate remote work – and further psychological studies need to be conducted to understand the effect of remote work on people.
Employees rank collaboration and communication, loneliness and not being able to unplug their top struggles when working from home. Furthermore, not all jobs can be done from home, which creates disparity.
As of mid-April, 191 countries announced or implemented school or university closures, impacting 1.57 billion students. Many educational institutions started offering courses online to ensure education was not disrupted by quarantine measures. Technologies involved in distant learning are similar to those for remote work and also include virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing and artificial-intelligence-enabled robot teachers.
Concerns about distance learning include the possibility that technologies could create a wider divide in terms of digital readiness and income level. Distance learning could also create economic pressure on parents – more often women – who need to stay at home to watch their children and possibly face decreased productivity at work.
Telehealth utilization has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in countries where medical costs are high, it’s important to ensure telehealth will be covered by insurance. Telehealth also requires a certain level of tech literacy to operate, as well as a good internet connection. And as medical services are one of the most heavily regulated businesses, doctors typically can only provide medical care to patients who live in the same jurisdiction. Regulations, at the time they were written, may not have envisioned a world where telehealth would be available.
Although quarantine measures significantly reduced face-to-face interactions, human creativity has brought the party online. Cloud raves and online streaming of concerts have gain traction around the world. Chinese film production companies also released films online. Museums and international heritage sites offer virtual tours. There has also been a surge of online gaming traffic since the outbreak.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created disruptions to the global supply chain. With social distancing and quarantine orders, some factories are completely shut down. While demand for food and personal protective equipment soar, some countries have implemented different levels of export bans on those items. Heavy reliance on paper-based records, a lack of visibility on data and lack of diversity and flexibility have made existing supply chain system vulnerable to any pandemic.
Core technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as Big Data, cloud computing, Internet-of-Things (“IoT”) and blockchain are building a more resilient supply chain management system for the future by enhancing the accuracy of data and encouraging data sharing.
3D printing technology has been deployed to mitigate shocks to the supply chain and export bans on personal protective equipment. 3D printing offers flexibility in production: the same printer can produce different products based on different design files and materials, and simple parts can be made onsite quickly without requiring a lengthy procurement process and a long wait for the shipment to arrive.
However, massive production using 3D printing faces a few obstacles. First, there may be intellectual property issues involved in producing parts that are protected by patent. Second, production of certain goods such as surgical masks is subject to regulatory approvals, which can take a long time to obtain. Other unsolved issues include how design files should be protected under patent regimes, the place of origin and impact on trade volumes and product liability associated with 3D printed products.
COVID-19 makes the world realize how heavily we rely on human interactions to make things work. Labour intensive businesses such as retail, food, manufacturing and logistics are the worst hit.
COVID-19 provided a strong push to rollout the usage of robots and research on robotics. In recent weeks, robots have been used to disinfect areas and to deliver food to those in quarantine.
Hong Kong Airport is using virus-killing robots to disinfect public areas
While there are some reports that predict many manufacturing jobs will be replaced by robots in the future, at the same time, new jobs will be created in the process. Policies must be in place to provide sufficient training and social welfare to the labour force to embrace the change.
All the above mentioned technology trends rely on a stable, high-speed and affordable internet. While 5G has demonstrated its importance in remote monitoring and healthcare consultation, the rollout of 5G is delayed in Europe at a time when the technology may be needed the most. The adoption of 5G will increase the cost of compatible devices and the cost of data plans. Addressing these issues to ensure inclusive access to internet will continue to be a challenge as the 5G network expands globally.
COVID-19 shows that as the 5G network expands globally, we need to ensure inclusive access.
COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of digital readiness, which allows business and life to continue as usual – as much as possible – during pandemics. Building the necessary infrastructure to support a digitized world and stay current in the latest technology will be essential for any business or country to remain competitive in a post-COVID-19 world, as well as take a human-centred and inclusive approach to technology governance.
As the BBC points out, an estimated 200 million people will lose their jobs due to COVID-19. And the financial burden often falls on the most vulnerable in society. Digitization and pandemics have accelerated changes to jobs available to humans. How to mitigate the impact on the larger workforce and the most vulnerable is the issue across all industries and countries that deserve not only attention but also a timely and human-centred solution.