"Technology will continue to be a critical and an indispensable tool in shaping a post-COVID Philippines."
In her twilight years, a saintly nun was too ill to attend the Christmas midnight mass. But so ardent was her desire to take part in the liturgy, that a vision appeared on the wall of her cell showing the mass being celebrated at the basilica more than a mile away. So clear was the vision that the next day she could name the friars present during the mass.
That saint was Clare of Assisi. It was for that last miracle that Pope Pius XII declared her patron saint of television in 1958.
Kairos from crisis. If there is any good to have come out from the past weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, it is the acceleration of the country’s digital transformation. Almost instantaneously, government agencies, business enterprises and academic institutions shifted to online platforms for meetings, marketing and even learning programs. The protracted hesitation of government, business and the academe to embrace the digital tools was resolved almost overnight.
Zoom meetings, for example. With social distancing measures in effect, people were prevented from attending meetings in person. As result, conducting online meetings and video conferences became the normative digital solution – in order for business to go on as usual. In fact, when President Rodrigo Roa Duterte called for a special session of Congress at the onset of this crisis, the House of Representatives, for the first time in its long history, allowed members of Congress to participate in the debates and even cast their votes through online platforms – Zoom, Viber and even SMS technology.
Soon enough, several variants of online-based meetings came to be – from webinars or learning seminars on the internet, to e-forums and even e-kamustahan among colleagues and peers. Friends and families separated by the enhanced community quarantine finally found themselves reunited throughs hours of webchats and video conferencing. Eventually media conferences had to give way for virtual pressers conducted from offices, and even television programs were being broadcasted live from the homes of media commentators.
Even the realm of the sacred was not spared. Parish churches were quick to set up their own social media accounts to allow the livestream of the parish liturgies celebrated sine populo, that is, without the people in physical attendance. The usual Lenten recollections were recorded and uploaded on social media platforms, allowing the faithful to participate in the traditional Holy Week practices from their homes. In fact, during Holy Week, many Filipino families, given the time difference, would stay up late to participate, even if only through television or the internet, the liturgies celebrated by Pope Francis from the Vatican.
The digital transformation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic also changed the way we do business. Online deliveries became ordinary fare in the urban areas, while both sellers and clients immediately resorted to online selling on Facebook and other social media accounts. The enterprising ones took advantage of the situation by starting virtual farmer markets online, or e-groceries and e-palengkes where those who want to avoid the inconvenient lines leading to the groceries and markets would instead order food and other grocery items using an online platform, which afterwards would be delivered to their doorsteps.
It has been said many times that COVID-19 is significantly changing our society, and that includes making digital transformation not only a priority but an imperative. More and more people are now using online payment platforms, resulting in a 25-percent increase in mobile banking use. These business technology solutions have long been available but have they never seem to capture a steady following – at least, not until now.
E-governance has been particularly useful these past weeks. The Department of Health maintains a COVID-19 resource tool not only on Facebook and Twitter, but even on messaging applications such as Viber. This provides the people with verified and timely information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, and effectively fact-checking and countering the surge of fake news and false information at the onset of the crisis. In addition to the DOH online tracker https://ncovtracker.doh.gov.ph
The accelerated use of digital technology tools has helped mitigate some of the adverse consequences of the ongoing public health emergency. The worrisome realization though is that more could have been achieved today if only sufficient attention and the right investments had been made to improve our digital ecosystem in the past.
For example, the law creating the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys), the government’s central identification platform for all Filipino citizens as well as resident aliens in the country, aimed at providing them with a national ID was passed in 2017. Close to three years later, and after receiving billions of pesos in funding, the program is still far from even an initial rollout.
If the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys) were already in place, it would have easier for the government to implement the Social Amelioration Program, and using the available database, to distribute more efficiently the cash subsidies for the qualified beneficiaries. It would have provided government with a more reliable baseline data, allowing it to make more exact projections as to the amount of funding required, and the number of target beneficiaries for the other social amelioration programs. There would have been no need for quarantine passes, certificates of employment or barangay IDs – which in the end tends to complicate quarantine protocols and even increase the risk of infections.
Another long overdue initiative is the proposed registration of subscriber identity module or subscriber identification module (SIM), widely known as a SIM cards and used in almost all mobile phone models. If all SIM cards were registered, contact training could be done more easily, since the government would have a ready centralized database of all active mobile phone subscribers. Thus, a more effective tracing the possible contacts of a COVID-19 suspect could be done by identifying the locations where said person may have been in the last ten days or so, and immediately alert those who were at the same location at the same time – the same technology successfully utilized by Vietnam and Taiwan.
Online learning technology has been long available in many parts of the world, but it has taken a health pandemic for education stakeholders in the Philippines to seriously consider the practical value of online technology and digital learning as an alternative to or to complement traditional classroom learning system. It is expected that even with the delayed opening of classes in September, many schools would resort to online learning during the first few months.
It is important that even if the COVID-19 crisis is resolved, hopefully sooner not later, the lessons of this digital transformation must not be forgotten. Technology solutions should be part of the “new normal” – to allow government, business and even the academe to conduct their activities online and nurture virtually connections with their users and clients.
Digital technology has shaped many of the ways that our society has tried to cope with the challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital technology platforms have helped us explore new ways for government to improve their services, business to expand their market and for schools to extend their classrooms. Technology has successfully filled the gap caused by the pandemic, and stepping it the breach consequent of social distancing, it will continue to be a critical and an indispensable tool in a better, post-COVID, Philippines.