Could the impact of Covid-19 lead to a technology transformation in Pakistan?

Alongside the huge socio-economic repercussions, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about technological transformations in every walk of life. Technology has never been used at such a massive scale before to keep people engaged and updated regarding the existential threats and counter measures being taken to eradicate the harmful effects of this virus. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have positively impacted healthcare, education, commerce, and governance systems. If ever there were any doubts about the criticality of ICTs, the horrific pandemic has laid such doubts to rest.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) estimates that over 1.5 billion students across the world have been impacted by Covid-19. Distant learning has enabled a significant number of students to benefit from online learning though it has no match with face-to-face learning. Various studies indicate that the online learning will continue to pick up momentum, and by 2025, it will have a market value of $325 billion. The healthcare system is another area where ICTs are being widely used. Telemedicine is of great help to provide medical services on telephones and through audio-visual aids. Virtual and SMART clinics are now extending online services and handling patients’ queries round-the-clock. There has been a large surge in online video conferences. The evolving technologies are also prominently being applied in other sectors. 5G wireless technology has made the Internet dependable, effective and the high speed means of communication can carry and instantly transfer a large amount of data. A Global Market Insight report (2019) estimated that online learning businesses will have a market share of $ 300 billion by 2025.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that there may not be a post-Covid-19 environment, because the pandemic may become a part of our future life. We have to think about how the world would be then. Governments, particularly of developing countries, will continue to grapple with the two major challenges: saving human lives and dealing with sinking economies. The role of ICTs would become even more crucial for dealing with these challenges.

In hindsight, it is now easy to recapitulate that without moving with the evolution of ICTs, what would have been our fate during the prevailing Covid-19. Although, Pakistan’s ICT infrastructure and Internet penetration is not at the stage where it should have been, the current level has served us fairly well.

In these difficult times, ICTs have played a key role in keeping the people informed about the dangers and to adopt measures to fight the virus. ICTs have proved their importance as how to face the current and future challenges and enhance resilience against future pandemics. In facilitating the essential services, learning and development and healthcare, ICTs have been of utmost importance. The evolving technologies have provided accurate and up to date information to the people. National portals and mobile apps have played a crucial part in keeping the wheels of economy, education, health, and food deliveries moving. Artificial intelligence has been an important resource making healthcare services available through virtual doctors. One shudders to think, if Pakistan had been at the same level of tele-density (3%) as it was in the 1990s, what would have been our fate during the present catastrophe?

However, we need to enhance our readiness to face future challenges. In addition to problems of connectivity, there are significant challenges to achieve readiness to completely switch to online learning, telemedicine, and e-commerce. State-of-the-art e-learning platforms, training of faculty members, course designs, safe and secure online payment systems for e-commerce, and motivation of stakeholders are some of the problems that will need solutions on priority basis. Students in the underserved and un-served areas face serious electricity and internet problems, so they could not benefit from online learning. Essential, equitable and universal access to the Internet remains a distant dream.

Traditionally, information technology and telecom is considered a service that minimises its importance. However, Covid-19 has amply highlighted its importance in every sector, may it be education, health, service deliveries or governance. Although, Pakistan has been trying to keep pace with the evolution which has enabled it to face the challenges of coronavirus, the required efforts have not gone into building its internet infrastructure. Unfortunately, Pakistan ranks below all its neighbours except Afghanistan in almost every International ICT Index. Internet penetration in Pakistan is only about 40% and that is also of not the required quality. For 4G, it’s only 25%. Under such circumstances, how can we expect to provide e-learning and e-health facilities in underserved and un-served areas of the country?

Since ICTs will remain critically important in the present and future era, what should be done to face future exigencies and eventualities? First and foremost, a broadband ICT infrastructure based on fiber optic cables must be built to serve the 220 million people of Pakistan. Universal access to technology should be ensured through a national digital transformational plan to bridge the digital divide in the country. We need well-trained IT professionals, therefore, an advanced training and development programme should be developed for the IT professional who should be selected on merit basis.To stop the brain drain, incentivisation should be a part of the plan.

To accelerate ICTs promotion in Pakistan, indigenous manufacturing of mobile devices and other equipment must be expedited. This is closely linked with declaring telecommunication as an industry. Why it has not been done so far is beyond comprehension. Again, the telecom market in Pakistan is heavily taxed which is a major disincentive for the potential investors. This requires an urgent attention of the government to create conditions conducive to ICTs promotion.

Online learning will now be the ‘new-normal’. It should be homogeneous and well-developed. To teach online, Pakistan requires: an enhancement of teachers’ skills, and a presentation of course contents which may synchronise with the online methods. All universities must have state-of-the-art learning management systems. The students should be made aware of the course contents, delivery, and assessment criteria well before the start of the course.