How Tech Is Supercharging Southeast Asia’s COVID-19 Response

Students posing with the robot they assembled in class.
Since the pandemic, technology has become ubiquitous. Photo credit: ADB

Technology has it limits and, yes, risks, but there is no denying that it has also supercharged the way countries, businesses, and organizations have been able to respond in the wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

In the Southeast Asia Development Symposium organized by the Asian Development Bank on 21 October, keynote speakers from the private sector cited wide-ranging examples of how digital has made it possible to cope with the disruptions caused by the pandemic from the way people live, shop, work, and learn, to how the public and private sectors and other organizations are collaborating.

Public–private sector collaboration

In his keynote at the online forum, Khailee Ng, Managing Partner at Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm 500 Startups, said technology is indeed “supercharging” the way the public and private sectors are collaborating.

In Indonesia, the public and the private sectors now work together to invent new ways to serve people with the help of technology, he noted. He cited how the government has reached out to Indonesian startup eFishery to work together to “leapfrog” fish farmers to tap Internet of Things (IoT) solutions in running fish farms. 

eFishery and the government agreed to create 20 smart fish villages across the country. Eleven of the villages have been rolled out so far, with some farmer participants seeing their income triple as a result of the joint initiative, thanks to digital solutions eFishery developed. The company uses artificial intelligence and IoT solutions in dispensing fish feed to increase yield and lower costs in fish and shrimp farms. IoT is one of the digital solutions considered to be part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which also refers to technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, blockchain, cloud computing, and 3D printing.

People helping people

Another way technology has helped is it allows “people to help people,” said Ng. He cited online marketplace iGrow which helps farmers raise capital through crowdfunding. iGrow is among the companies in 500 Startups’ portfolio. iGrow connects investors with farmers needing financial help to buy seeds and farming supplies, lease land, and maintain their farms.

Similarly, peer-to-peer crowdfunding platform like Kitabisa had been able to provide financing to individuals even during the height of COVID-19. He said the platform was raising an average of $500,000 for individuals, effectively decentralizing financing and highlighting that peer-to-peer financing solutions can be a “huge force for nation building.”

In a separate keynote, Sherie Ng, Microsoft General Manager for Public Sector, Asia Pacific, also noted technology’s transformative powers since COVID-19 hit. “The world has witnessed 2 years of digital transformation in just 2 months in this pandemic,” she said, citing a similar comment from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Microsoft as a ‘digital first responder’ 

Amid this backdrop, she said Microsoft acted as “digital first responder” to support individuals, organizations, and governments in making sure there is continued access to education, healthcare, and government services.

She cited that Microsoft brought education online for millions of students in Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Viet Nam, among others, through its communication platform Teams and cloud platform Azure.

Microsoft also worked with major healthcare providers to bring telehealth or telemedicine services to people who are stuck in their homes due to government-imposed lockdown.

In New Zealand and the Philippines, the company helped authorities hold online court hearings amid the lockdown.

Aiding digital transformation

To fully enjoy the benefits of digital transformation and to capitalize on the new opportunities technology has opened up in the wake of COVID-19, the Microsoft executive said governments have to provide digital infrastructure and framework. 

Governments should also make sure they have skilled workers. “We will be returning to a very different economy, a very different world, which demands technical skills and competencies, such as data scientists, cloud architects, AI engineers, and social marketers. We firmly believe in democratizing digital skills for every individual to participate in this new economy.”

She also flagged cybersecurity among issues governments need to address in the post-COVID-19 world. She noted COVID-19-themed attacks have shown how rapidly cyber criminals are moving to prey on individuals and organizations. In just 4 months, she said Microsoft saw more than 900,000 spam messages, hundreds of malware incidents, and 48,000 malicious URLs—all related to COVID-19. She said organizations must adopt a proactive risk management approach, invest in building a cyber-resilient culture, and adopt a “zero trust model,” which ensures that every access is authenticated, authorized, and inspected.

Governments should also ensure the sustainability of the planet’s finite resources when plotting an inclusive recovery. She noted how digital tools can be used to help scientists around the world better monitor and manage the planet's natural resources. 

Similarly, 500 Startups’ Ng stressed environmental sustainability as key to unlocking innovations from startups helping governments address COVID-19 challenges. “The key to unlock a lot of the innovations is to provide financing for the innovators,” he said. “Unlocking financing is not a question of more budgets. The question is of discovering each other.” 

He said assessing startups based on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria is an easy starting point for anyone into “impact investing.”

He said “ESG is an established framework that fund managers across the world
understand. Yet the tech startup industry, for all of its speed, is the slowest to adopt ESG. In fact, I would dare say they [startups] have largely ignored ESG on the path of seeking the next round of financing and to me this is a very big problem. Why? Because they are the innovators. They need to provide metrics to actually help the asset allocators see the impact that's actually being created.”

He said 500 Startups addressed the problem by creating frameworks for ESG and integrating these when making investment decision. As a result, in the past 7 months, 75 of the venture capital firm’s startups have already adopted ESG policies. 

He stressed the need for private–public sector collaboration going forward. “The challenges ahead are far too great for the public sector or the private sector alone to handle.”