It has already been around for about nine months and the ubiquitous appearance of Covid-19 is still prevalent all around the globe. At the initial stage, it was assumed to be an epidemic like any other Corona virus disease, for example, SARS, MERS or Ebola. Though life threatening, the world assumed, it will be still manageable somehow through lockdown and other containing measures. And, indeed, lockdown was deemed to be the first and foremost step and was seriously followed by most of the countries around the world.
We can reexamine the initial period of lockdowns in this part of the world. Though SARS, MERS and Ebola have been affecting different parts of the world for the last few decades, this part of the subcontinent has never experienced such a scary encounter ever for a long time. 'Lockdown', 'isolation' and 'quarantine' have been new experiences for us. Kolkata in India started to implement lockdown a bit earlier than we did. A video become viral at that time where Kolkata police was seen beating lockdown violators mercilessly. Inspired by that strong visual clip some tried to implement the same in Bangladesh too.
However, the lockdown, imposing and overwhelming in its very nature, was criticised by a quarter of the society. Finally, in a newspaper article, three Indian economists including two Bengali-origin Nobel laureates namely Amartya Sen and Abhijit Banerjee indicated that the lockdown measures can only be implemented to some extent if food supply is ensured at the least. The article recognised that like every other problem the Covid-19 pandemic also needs a sustainable solution. Since a vast majority of the people in this part of the world live on mere subsistence level, without any savings or a safety net, a prolonged lockdown is just another means of death at the end, not from Covid-19 as such but certainly from starvation due to dire poverty from loss of livelihoods and interruptions in standard supply chain.
The question thus becomes for how long a meaningful food support can be provided to the general masses. So far the consensus in the scientific community is that a real and working vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19, would not be available until the end of December, 2020. Even though a Russian vaccine is already in the market, the scientific process of the discovery has been questioned and the efficacy of the vaccine has been regarded as doubtful. Then again, even if the vaccine is approved by the governments around the world, the mass scale production would take time as much as to the mid of 2021 at least. Without hard labour of the working population, food production and the related supply chain can't be maintained for such a long time. The economy, all agreed, thus must be open for business, i.e., kept running during this pandemic, even if in limited scale.
As it appears, the most sustainable solution at this stage could be to find a suitable way to work from home during this pandemic. Along with finding the protective or preventive measures of SARS-CoV-2 medicine or vaccine, we have to think about how to adapt to the changing conditions. In fact, after the Spanish Influenza in 1920s, it is one of the greatest public health disasters in 100 years. At that time, probably it was unthinkable to work from home. But while we are on the brink of the 4th industrial revolution, and as modern technologies such as information and communication technology, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, and 3D printing, to name a few, are readily becoming available, it is increasingly becoming possible, suitable, and appropriate to a great extent to work from home. If not the industrial and business related works that need physical intervention, a large part of our day to day activities and businesses like education, government and non-government office works, e-commerce, banking etc., can be completed adequately using remote online facilities.
When we consider the people who are rushing into Dhaka roads, we find as per the corresponding demographic structure about 40 per cent are of the age 22 years or younger. A large portion of them go out from home for study purposes primarily. With the advent of modern technology, online education has reached up to the level that with some minor limitations, particularly as a developing country, we still can somehow manage educating our kids during this pandemic. Though this is new here, online education has been an acceptable approach in the developed countries for quite a long time. In Bangladesh, during this pandemic, North South University (NSU) has been among the first educational institutions to introduce online education within the shortest period of time. The online classes of this university have been running in full-swing with all the modern facilities since the very beginning of the present crisis. However, the challenge remains to make it available to the socially marginalised groups through implementation of country-specific innovative ideas.
In this connection, we appreciate the visionary outlook of the present government's flagship "Digital Bangladesh" programme, where it considers information technology as one of the major means of its development process as well as to ensure transparency and dynamism in all the government activities. In the government offices, many of the advanced usage of IT were visible even before the Covid-19 crisis. Smart card, Machine Readable Passport (MRP), e-passport, e-tendering, e-filing, virtual meetings etc., have been in operation for quite some years now. The government now can take some special initiatives during this pandemic to expedite its "Digital Bangladesh" programme for all its regular activities and in all its offices.
The benefits of the use of Information technology have been known to the corporate world as well. The idea of 'Home office' was already in place in some of the leading technology companies such as Google, Facebook, and others alike even before the pandemic. Some businesses even found it more economic and productive that the employees work from home. As a consequence, these businesses have reduced their office floor spaces and allowed more employees to work from home. Our corporate offices need to start thinking in the same line, at least during this pandemic. Especially for the countries like ours, where most of the time we have to spend on the roads due to heavy traffic on the way to office and back home, the idea is also environment friendly as "Home Office" leaves less people on the roads, which in turn produce less traffic and less pollution.
One of the challenges during the pandemic for the general population is to meet their day to day business needs such as shopping and trading with minimal outside movement. Electronic commerce or e-commerce, which has already been a popular means for quite a long time in the developed world, came handy in this situation here. We came to know that even amid this economic crisis, due to Covid-19 instead of a downturn the earnings of Amazon have increased manifold. The same is the case for Chaldal.com, a leading online grocery shop in Bangladesh, which has experienced its daily order to increase to about 5,000 from pre-Covid-19 orders of about 2,000. The owner of this start-up e-shop, a young NSU alumnus, had to recruit and train up about 900 extra employees during the pandemic to meet the market demand. Chaldal.com is now expanding its business with new warehouses around the country, instead of confining its operation within Dhaka.
In the banking sector, the leading banks in Bangladesh reportedly have experienced changed customer behaviour during the pandemic. The City Bank Limited, with its advanced online service facilities, saw its online usage to increase from 16 per cent before to 68 per ent during this Covid-19 time. Though the niche of a banking environment is complicated, and where its loan takers are affected by the pandemic and experiencing difficulties in repaying those loans and continuation of businesses - small, medium, or large - present extreme challenge, appropriate and responsive online banking services can be a part of a far-reaching solution to the plight of these businesses.
Clearly, during the Covid-19 pandemic while many other businesses have partially or totally collapsed, opportunities have been created in those sectors that are mostly based on online system or digital platform. New opportunities have been created in health sector too as telemedicine has come to the forefront in lieu of face-to-face regular or first-response consultation by doctors. Computer and mobile sales have increased worldwide, and Bangladesh sees no exception in this regard too. Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) likewise expects a gradual recovery of sales from initial slump and a flourishing business in the coming days.
Every stakeholder of our economy from the government to the private businesses to the general people have realised now that the entire economy has become technology driven, even more so during this crisis. Formulation of a comprehensive policy to keep the economy running through the use of digital technology is the call of the day. Economic incentive packages for small and medium IT-related and IT-enabled companies to help them to take their services to the grass-root level can only help the government's efforts to reduce poverty and establish a just and fair society in the long run. The dark days of Covid-19 will pass one day; our scientists and technologists, in the meantime, must be given the opportunity to play the vital role to help recover and revive the economy.
Dr. Md. Sirajul Islam is Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and Director, Centre for Infrastructure Research and Services (CIRS), and Dr. Mohammad Rezaul Bari is Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), North South University.
[The article is based on a recent webinar jointly organised by the Centre for Infrastructure Research and Services (CIRS) and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at North South University on the topic "Digital Bangladesh: Technology for Covid-19 response"]