Hacking the Next Normal

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COVID-19 SENT the world into disarray, and we now face unprecedented challenges in dealing with the ramifications of movement restrictions, and reviving our society in all pertinent aspects.

For Penang, this entails exploring reformations centred around technological solutions as we tread uncharted waters. On April 20, Digital Penang – the state outfit to promote a digitally engaged society – hosted the virtual roundtable “PLC19 eCrowdSource: Hacking the Next Normal”. Over 100 participants comprising engineers, computer scientists, coders, system analysts and designers, and other technological experts convened online to discuss the numerous challenges faced during the Movement Control Order (MCO), as well as possible solutions to address them.

The initiative is in line with the state’s early measures in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic which includes the launch of the “Penang Lawan Covid-19” (PLC19) campaign on March 16. The state’s proactive measures have thus far been successful. Statistically, Penang has consistently recorded the second-lowest Covid-19 cases per capita in the country (behind Kedah), with a recovery rate of over 80%, nearly twice that of the national figure.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has created a new situation that most of us are unfamiliar with,” says chief minister Chow Kon Yeow in his opening statement.

The pandemic’s direct impact on Penangites’ health and social behaviour notwithstanding, the state’s economy also suffered a great setback. “The Covid-19 pandemic has created a new situation that most of us are unfamiliar with,” says chief minister Chow Kon Yeow in his opening statement. “This has changed how we move, how we do business and how we interact with one another.”

The “Penang Next Normal Strategy” attempts to address this new situation and to ready the state for its reopening. A key part of this strategy is to capitalise on Penang’s status as a technological hub in the country, and by encouraging people to learn, develop and utilise technology in multiple areas; for example, re-engineering face shields for frontline medical workers, employing the use of Facebook Live in lieu of daily press conferences to broadcast messages to the public, soliciting data from hawkers through WhatsApp and Google Forms for cash transfer aids, as well as encouraging participation from hawkers and traders in e-commerce.

Penang Institute’s executive director Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng echoes this sentiment when detailing his vision of the “next” normal. “Our discussion today is recognising not only the disruptions brought about by Covid-19, but also where the accelerations will be,” says Ooi. “We are not working in a vacuum; Covid-19 might have taken us all by surprise, but a lot of measures are already put in place by the state government even before Covid-19.”


The “Penang Next Normal Strategy” attempts
to address this new situation and to ready
the state for its reopening.

A prime example is the Penang2030, an action plan launched by Chow, to assess areas where Penang has to develop and move towards the “next” normal. It is understood that these developments have to be digital. In responding to global, regional and national events that affect Penang, this “next” normal also involves sub-nationalism, whereby some of the immediate solutions would take into account the neighbouring states of Kedah and Perlis.

But shortcomings are inevitable during this transitional period, concedes Steven Sim, MP for Bukit Mertajam and director of PLC19. Most notably, the onboarding for digital technology is still relatively low in spite of the programmes introduced by the local councils to increase participation in e-commerce. In the field of telemedicine, Sim observes a need for more testing of Covid-19 cases and the adoption of technology in dealing with potential cases.

Other post-MCO challenges include adapting human interactions to the “next” normal, as well as dealing with the pandemic’s impact on Penang’s tourism industry. “We should channel some of the unused event budget towards creating more digital content that benefits the state and the people during this period,” he adds.

The roundtable discussion on innovative challenges are presented in several key areas:

Education

With schools and universities closed, digital means of education are now increasingly adopted to facilitate students’ learning process. It is crucial to address the digital divide that persists in the state for digital learning to become an accessible and effective method of teaching and learning in educational institutions.

Most significantly, students from underprivileged communities in rural areas get the short end of the stick, often facing difficulties such as having no proper internet access, low bandwidth or no viable devices for e-learning. It is posited that the state should assist in providing affordable second-hand laptops to these families, as well as improving existing WiFi networks in these areas to ensure easy access to educational materials and interactive e-learning methods.

Additionally, Joshua Woo, a former councillor with the Seberang Perai Municipal Council, points to the need for real-time supervision while conducting virtual learning in government tuition centres for students from low-income families, in order to alleviate problems related to passive self-studying. He adds that existing content producers such as Google Classroom do not provide such means of supervision, and propose the idea of utilising communication apps like WhatsApp and Telegram to fill the void.

Volunteer Coordination

The importance of volunteerism is also highlighted. To alleviate the struggles of the needy and to ensure maximum efficiency in aid distribution, Bud Valade of Caremongering Penang uses Google Forms and Google Spreadsheets to easily gather information from the public. This allows coordinators to quickly connect cases with aid providers from the same area, thus limiting extensive travelling during the MCO.

To further improve accuracy in aid dissemination, Valade proposes the incorporation of geolocation into this capability. He also identifies the need to mobilise volunteer communities as a “reserve” capability to supplement government activities during a crisis. To achieve this, the volunteer groups and their specialised areas of capability have to be mapped out ahead of time, such that additional resources, on top of government aid, can be mobilised quickly. This platform can also be used for authentication purposes, and in eradicating imposter and bogus volunteers from scamming the public.

Employment and Impacted Businesses

Adapting to the new economic landscape has never been more vital. A prominent concern is the ability for the state and industries to be self-sufficient, given the imposed ban on exports in response to the pandemic. This entails reconfiguring and repurposing the manufacturing lines to ensure sustained supply chains. For SMEs, incorporating digitisation, managing human resources and maintaining an online presence are imperative for their business operations. Likewise, webinars and training programmes are resourceful initiatives in equipping these enterprises with the necessary tools to take their businesses online. However, the state still has to tackle the challenge of digitally onboarding workers in the gig economy, e.g. plumbers, electricians, servicemen etc., who are perhaps the hardest hit.

As businesses and factories reopen post-MCO, Sim also stresses on the need for an Environmental, Health & Safety (EHS) protocol to prevent a new wave of infections. Using technology, stringent public health measures, e.g. sanitising, temperature checks, social distancing etc., in government and business premises should be implemented for the next few months.

Food and Beverage

The low percentage of digital onboarding from hawkers in this regard indicates their resistance to e-commerce, this is likely due to a lack of technological literacy. Educational and training programmes by the state could help orientate them towards this transition. With the prevalence of food delivery services during the MCO, setting up cloud kitchens in which these street food hawkers come together to prepare meals may also be a viable option for continued business operations. Food safety, particularly in the street food sector, is another component that should be scrutinised and elevated as an extension.

Where food delivery services are concerned, a frequent complaint is on the disproportionate delivery costs to the prices of products purchased. Sim concedes to this, but adds that consumers ought to adapt as well as learn about different ways of costing, doing business and transacting in the new status quo. Other relevant challenges include dealing with the shortage of delivery riders during peak hours or seasons.

Telemedicine

The roundtable discussion on innovative challenges are presented in several key areas.

One webinar attendee raised the point of how Covid-19 is changing the landscape of medical practice and medical tourism in Penang, citing examples such as the restriction of patients from Indonesia as well as the reluctance of people to visit doctors in this time of crisis. He suggests the need to explore alternative means, including e-medicine and distant examination for doctors to examine, diagnose and treat patients online, without the risk of infection from proximate physical contact.

Until a vaccine for Covid-19 is developed, contact tracing remains necessary for the general public. On that front, the federal government has followed in the footsteps of Singapore in developing apps for the said purpose. But there is also the need for a streamlined platform that incorporates technology from different solutions. Having multiple apps at once will cause confusion and resistance among the public in using them, thereby reducing the effectiveness of these apps and contact tracing altogether.

On top of that, technology for contact tracing also raises the issue of data privacy. To mollify concerns and increase active usage of the technology, Praburaajan Selvarajan from Madison Technologies recommends adopting anonymised solutions, maximising transparency in the use of personal information, as well as explaining the value of these solutions in light of the viral outbreak.

The road ahead in reviving society post-Covid-19 has many hurdles, and this will likely persist for some time. Nonetheless, Chow is optimistic of Penang’s ability to overcome them. “We must not only survive, but also aim to thrive,” he says. “We must empower the citizens of Penang and Malaysia to continue pursuing their aspirations in spite of the new challenges we may face.”

Ernest Mah is currently pursuing his Master’s in English Language Studies in Universiti Malaya. A member of the varsity debating team, he loves singing, enjoys speaking and writing, and dreams of becoming the Malaysian Ryan Seacrest.



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