First of two parts
The unprecedented lockdowns and quarantines in the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic had affected more than half of the global population for different durations of time. The crisis revealed the vulnerability of human society in front of a new contagious disease outbreak, and the experience has convinced many people that a similar episode is not impossible in the future.
During the lockdowns and quarantines, technologies have played a crucial role in keeping the community functioning; these technologies are likely to have a long-lasting impact on our lives beyond Covid-19. We selected 10 of such technologies for our readers based on personal observations of what happened in the crisis-hit technologically advanced countries.
These are not exhaustive, and some other vital technologies might emerge, as the pandemic is still raging.
These countries are leaders in scientific and technological advancements, and their experiences will likely spill over to developing countries like the Philippines later on as technology cost curves decline over time. Understanding how technology trends evolve is essential to the development strategies of any country, in particular to developing countries that must allocate their limited resources to catch the most promising technology trend in the catch-up economic development phase.
China was the first country hit by the pandemic and the first to open up. Its lockdown and quarantine measures were the most comprehensive in many aspects, and one may also say its level of adoption of innovative technologies to keep society running was all-encompassing.
1. Online shopping
The 2003 SARS — severe acute respiratory syndrome — outbreak jumpstarted the era of both business-to-business and business-to-consumer online marketplace platforms in China. The country was a leader in online e-commerce in 2019 with an estimated merchandise value of around $1.9 trillion, more than three times the second-placed country, the United States, with $590 billion. The pandemic reinforces the Chinese leadership in the online shopping area; however, it also transforms online shopping from a nice-to-have to a must-have around the world. Amazon is increasing its dominance in the industry and the incorporation of autonomous drones plays an important part in its plans. The Philippine Central Bank is also rolling out digital standards and payment systems; and local players are finding creative ways to overcome ongoing roadblocks like the low penetration of banks and credit-card ownership and logistic challenges. Covid-19 is forcing these plans to be prioritized and accelerated.
2. Increasing robot use from online delivery to healthcare
A robust logistics system must support online shopping. In areas where regulations considered in-person delivery as a health hazard, delivery companies in the US and China are launching 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. The American and Chinese e-commerce giants are also ramping up their development of robot deliveries to supplement the non-contact human delivery.
The infectious environment under Covid-19 also saw a dramatic increase in robots in hospitals and hotels doubling up as community isolation facilities. The robots typically performed simple human interface tasks such as medicine and meal delivery.
The trend of increased use of robots received a significant boost under the pandemic, and it will slowly transform many aspects of work as robot capabilities increase with auxiliary supporting technology such as 5G, Internet of Things or IoT sensors, speech recognition and AI matures.
The increasing robot capacity in the simple service task will affect future low-level skill labor requirements. Higher-level skills and multi-tasking abilities will likely be a key focus of future employment eligibility.
3. Digital and contactless payments
The motto that “money is dirty” was literally validated in the pandemic. Banknotes carry the virus, so central banks in China, the US and South Korea have implemented various measures, including disinfecting the returning banknotes before they go again into circulation.
In the pandemic, contactless digital payments, either in the form of cards or e-wallets, were the recommended payment method to avoid the spread of Covid-19. Digital payments enabled people to make online purchases and payments of goods, services and even utility payments, as well as to receive stimulus funds faster.
All countries with digital and contactless payment saw a surge of transaction volume and value in the pandemic. The trend will continue after the pandemic ends.
4. Telecommuting or work from home
The lockdowns and quarantines forced many companies to arrange employees to work from home. Technologies including VPNs or virtual private networks, VoIPs or voice-over internet protocols, virtual meetings, cloud technology and various work collaboration tools were operating together to enable work from home.
At the moment, telecommuting and WFH — work-from-home — are only possible in a well- connected internet environment and a reasonably disciplined work-culture populace. In addition to preventing the spread of viruses, remote work also saves commute time and provides more flexibility. A survey in Singapore saw as high as 80 percent of employees favor such a working environment and express no objection to working at home.
Telecommuting represents a new paradigm in office work. 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 labor costs.
But telecommuting complicates some labor and income tax law issues, such as those associated with providing a safe work environment and jurisdiction on income tax. Laws and regulations must be updated to accommodate remote work, and society needs further psychological studies to understand the effect of remote work on people. Issues involving employees’ experience of loneliness and lack of work-life balance can be touchy. Singapore’s trade minister raised the alarm on the potential effect of expanding telecommuting.
It is estimated that only 25 percent of jobs can be done at home, and mostly these are white-collar jobs. Workers with college education are more likely to have jobs that allow them to work from home compared with people with high school diplomas. Some professions, such as restaurant, medical services and manufacturing, may not have the option to work at home at all.
Policies concerning data flow and taxation would need to be adjusted should the volume of cross-border digital services rise significantly.
5. 5G and information and communications technology (ICT)
All the technology trends mentioned above rely on reliable, fast and affordable internet.
The 5G infrastructure and the associated ICT serve as the foundation technology in enabling the above-mentioned technology trends. The 5G paragraph is a befitting transition to the first part of this post-Covid “new normal.”
The pandemic will likely accelerate the adoption of 5G and the upgrade of the existing ICT backbone network. The current issues facing the telecom network operators on high rollout costs because of more dense base stations and inadequate monetization prospects must be resolved.
The State might need to more actively participate in building the network.
The current geopolitical standoff on 5G between China and the US is also an important issue that must be resolved. The American boycott of Huawei products in 5G is likely to push up 5G-deployment cost. The telecom equipment market is oligopolistic now. Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia control as much as 80 percent of the global telecom equipment hardware market, and the absence of one is likely to hurt competition at a time the technology has proven its value.