Delivering dividends: Covid-19 fast-tracking digitalization

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THE pandemic may have forced us apart physically, but digital solutions are providing innovative ways to keep us connected, to learn and do business. Delivering digital support to our citizens is an important priority for governments, as it is being fast-tracked by the impacts of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19).

In Australia, our myGov e-government platform has provided a streamlined and secure way for nationals to access government services online. As a long-standing partner, we are also supporting the Philippines’s Covid-19 response, which is delivering digital dividends to many Filipinos.

Through our development assistance program, Australia has partnered with the World Bank (WB) to provide support to the National Economic and Development Authority to design and deliver a secure, fit-for-purpose Philippine Identification System, or PhilSys. This will lay the foundation for integrated e-government services long after the health crisis is over.

Our partnership with the WB has also assisted the Department of Social Welfare and Development to design and roll-out digital solutions for social protection. It has helped improve online registration, verification and digital payment processes, as well as built an online grievance redress mechanism. These measures allow emergency support to reach those most in need safely, quickly and more accurately.

In order to realize digital dividends, digital infrastructure must be robust, and the Internet widely accessible. Through our Coalitions for Change initiative, Australia supported the passage of the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act, which is expanding Internet access to public spaces and remote locations all over the Philippines. SpeedCast, an Australian firm with world-leading expertise in remote connectivity, has partnered with the United Nations Development Programme and the Department of Information and Communications Technology, with an aim to rollout 6,000 Wi-Fi hot spots across the country by mid-2021.

Even with the right infrastructure, digital dividends only pay out if people are equipped to make the most of digital tools. Access to quality education is crucial. To help ensure that Filipino children are not left behind, Australia has contributed to the training of local teachers so that they can effectively deliver their lessons remotely.

Speaking of education, my country is also connecting Filipinos with world-class Australian universities that offer virtual instruction on diverse subjects. Online learning can bring opportunity: A recent Austrade and FutureLearn collaboration saw almost 23,000 Filipinos enroll in free online Australian university courses.

For industry innovators, remote work and lockdowns have accelerated the use of digital solutions. Like so many Filipino firms, our 300-plus Australian companies based here have embraced work from home arrangements. Many are using this time to upskill their local work force while accelerating the digitalization of their products and services. These include leveraging on artificial intelligence and building up their online presence through e-commerce platforms. Companies are moving up the value chain from voice assistance to more comprehensive digital offerings. This is an important step in future-proofing the Philippine economy, including the important sector of business-process outsourcing, or BPO.

More Australian companies are also directly contributing to local digital priorities which are included as part of their Covid-19 response. Aussie firm No Moss has supported major telecommunications corporations with their digitalization initiatives, while Niftie is mapping local transport routes to help businesses get their staff to and from work safely. Virtual Psychologist is offering Filipino workers text-based mental health counseling for the first time.

Another company, iOmniscient, has developed the iQ FeverCheck: an end-to-end solution that can detect an individual’s elevated body temperature, even while wearing a mask, in a crowd, or at a distance. KeyOptions, together with British company Virolens, has conducted successful trials at Heathrow Airport for their five-second virus pathology screening with 99.84-percent accuracy. KeyOptions is now looking to introduce this in the Philippines.

Solutions like these will be valuable tools for promoting sustainable economic growth, embedding recovery, and shaping a more resilient future. They offer a path to a “new normal” that maintains the safety and wellness of Filipinos while boosting economic opportunity.

(Steven J. Robinson AO is the Ambassador of Australia to the Philippines. Follow him on Twitter: @AusAmbPH.)

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