Covid-19 Exclusives: Tech Solutions for the Next Normal

By Steven Sim

main image

You read it here first! Our Covid-19 online exclusives.

BY NOW, ALL of us will be familiar with the term new normal or as we call it in Penang, next normal.

Since the start of the Covid-19 epidemic, many commentators have spoken about how this crisis will change the way we live our lives.

Many also talked about technology playing a more prominent role in how we do business, how we transact, how we learn new things, how we socialise etc. Perhaps, more than ever, social distancing gives new meaning to the idea of social media.

The restriction on physical contact forces us to resort to Facebook, for example, to connect and reconnect with our social circles.

For the past one month, I spent about 30 minutes to an hour almost daily to “meet” my constituents via Facebook Live, reporting to them on the latest situation, listening to their problems and even addressing their questions.

Continuing from my first article on the use of technology to deal with Covid-19, at this point, the state government is already unfolding its “Strategi Next Normal Pulau Pinang” to manage the new situation we are facing now and after the movement control order.

Digitalising Penang’s Famous Hawker Industry

Penang’s street food is world famous. The epidemic however greatly stifled the sector. To deal with this, both city councils in Penang have launched campaigns to assist hawkers and small traders to digitalise their businesses.

With 14,000 licensed standalone hawkers and small traders, and perhaps an equal number of those who operate in kopitiams, as well as food courts, the opportunity for digital economy in this sector is huge.

Anticipation of the next normal is helping to expedite towards digitalisation. An immediate test will be our Ramadan e-Bazar which will operate in the coming days during the fasting month.

Technology to Aid Bureaucratic Process

Both city councils also employed technology to assist hawkers and small traders applying for the state government’s cash transfer aid.

To avoid crowding of people filling out application forms in the councils’ offices, they communicated with licensed hawkers via WhatsApp and used Google Forms to solicit applicants’ information.

This not only reduced human contact but also sped up the channelling of applications to the recipients. Penang was the first state to roll out our cash aid on 1 April 2020.

Crowdsourcing Solutions for the Next Normal

On 20 April 2020, Digital Penang, the state outfit to promote a digitally engaged society, hosted a virtual roundtable, “PLC19 eCrowdSource: Hacking the Next Normal”.

Over 100 participants comprising engineers, computer scientists, coders, system analysts and designers, and techies in general convened online to discuss tech solutions to our new situation and new challenges.

In fact, leaders from various sectors, SME, medicine, education, youth development, women development were present to give their views on how Covid-19 has and will change the way they operate. The new norm affects everyone, and we are looking towards technology to help us deal with it.

This weekend, the state will host another virtual roundtable, this time with stakeholders in the tourism sector, one of the main economic drivers of Penang. According to our research, the service sector will be the most affected sector in Penang due to the Covid-19 crisis.

We cannot afford to wait until the movement control order is over to only meet and discuss. Technology gives us an opportunity to collaborate remotely and plan ahead even without meeting physically

Opportunities and Challenges

The opportunity is huge in Penang and elsewhere for an unprecedented investment and onboarding in technology. The city councils are already exploring thermal cameras to be incorporated into our eyes-in-the-sky city cctv network.

The healthcare sector is anticipating the rise of telehealth where medical products and services are delivered via smartphones, video call system, apps or even the traditional telephone network.

The federal government may eventually follow governments elsewhere in the world to introduce contact tracing apps which will change the way we move around and socialise.

There is already a proposal to encourage greater participation in the digital economy through government cash transfer via e-wallets.

In the first round of Penang’s stimulus package, about 400,000 people received aids ranging from RM100 rent exemption to RM500 cash aid.

Imagine if the government gives RM100 to 400,000 people via e-wallet, the digital economy will have RM40 million to spend. This will definitely encourage businesses to digitalise.

All these are not without its challenges of course. Data security and privacy will be a key concern. Personal data protection laws will have to be reviewed and updated.

We will have to collectively weigh the pros and cons of a better networked and a more open exchange society and decide from there.

Business owners will have to rethink their business models and consumers may have to change our consumption patterns. There will be new and perhaps even difficult behavioural re-adaptation.

The government, both state and federal, will need to deal with improved connectivity even as congestions on our roads are now transferred onto our bandwidth due to restricted movements.

Home-based offices will be a more regular feature from now on; people buying and selling without going out of their homes, entertainment content delivered via the internet, as well as making multi-party video calls will be norms.

The issue will be more acute in rural areas and lower income communities where they face the twin problems of lacking good quality internet connectivity and lacking the necessary IT equipment, even basic ones such as smartphones and computers.

The Pakatan Harapan federal government previously allocated RM22 billion from 2019 up to 2023 for a National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan which aimed to increase high speed and low cost broadband connectivity coverage all over the country. This project should be expedited and brought forward.

Finally, if human beings are a gregarious species, Covid-19 goes against all that we are made of. It threatens to cut us off our loved ones, our friends, our social circle and the society in general.

Thus the new norm is difficult in that it reduces us to some sort of quasi-solitary living. Technology, to an extent, helps us to close the gap and perhaps one day soon, it will further improve the quality of our lives including curing deadly diseases such as Covid-19.

This article first appeared on on April 24, 2020.

Steven Sim is the Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam and Director of the Penang Lawan Covid-19 campaign in charge of communication and citizen empowerment.
Steven Sim

is the MP for Bukit Mertajam and Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports.