The upside of Covid-19: a more functionally digital Pakistan
Adnan Rehmat
One of the most striking characteristics of Pakistan’s response to Covid-19 is how discernibly digital in nature its fightback against the pandemic has been. By local standards applied on large communities, this is impressive in a society that is fatalist by practice but is now swiftly adapting to digital initiatives and means.
Whether it is measured by how the government has set about quickly building a policy-and-implementation response infrastructure, how the now shuttered brick-and-mortar businesses are quickly evolving new ways to keep their consumers stocked, or how citizens have virtualized their homes to stay connected with their work and personal lives – digitization is now the byte-shaped heart of an evolving Pakistani social fabric.
Consider this. The government on April 9 launched a new project to disburse Rs120 billion among 12 million families – Rs12,000 each – as a subsistence stipend to purchase groceries to help them tide over the next several weeks. This has an intended two-pronged benefit – help the poorest in Pakistan keep immediate hunger at bay and help them maintain social isolation to prevent further spread of coronavirus.
The single largest attempted social safety program in Pakistan’s history, this project was made possible through its underlying digital design. Beneficiaries were to enlist online through SMS through their phones. Over 20 million applied online within three weeks. They were assisted by the fact that 165 million Pakistanis use mobile phones, including the poorest.
Poverty-based eligibility is cross-verified by citizens’ socio-economic status digital data maintained by the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) and Benazir Income Support Program (BISP).
This will hopefully guard against fraud and ensure transparency and accountability. If the implementation is successful, Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised to scale it up and provide additional funds.
On a parallel track, the government also wants to beef up community outreach and assistance to the poorest, with supplies financed by a special fund getting contributions by wealthier citizens and businesses.
The PM has set up a volunteer force of youth to deliver basic supplies to people at home and within their communities. Within a week of its launch, over 700,000 volunteers have enlisted online. They will be digitally provided data of needy families – to be operated by local district governments – where they will deliver supplies made available from local official depots.
Businesses are adjusting digitally too. The banking sector regulator has facilitated rapid upscaling of digital financial transactions by banks which within weeks are now matching digital transactions with offline volumes, including online payments and transfers.
With lockdowns in place to varying degrees and normal businesses closed, major Pakistani wholesalers and retailers – already doing well digitally pre-virus – have ramped up their digital transactions and major cities have seen consumers ordering groceries and other home and office supplies online.
Larger private educational institutes have also launched digital classes while the Ministry of Education is launching a dedicated new 24/7 Education TV Channel to continue teaching students of classes 1 to 12.
Healthcare has gone digital too, including early diagnosis for coronavirus to allow for a greater Covid-19 focus by hospitals. The Ministry of Information Technology has developed an app for self-help home-screening of suspected cases to prevent hospitals being overrun while universities and hospitals in Islamabad and Karachi have launched similar digital platforms to assist with self diagnosis.
Teams of private doctors are offering digital consultations for non-coronavirus related healthcare across the country.
E-governance is getting a major leg-up too. The government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is now conducting online recruitment – starting off with over 2,000 teachers – and transfers and postings.
The government in Sindh province has developed the country’s first list of SOPs for various government services and private enterprises that will shortly be given permission to resume operations. These aim to enhance public hygiene and health safety regulations for the world after the pandemic.
And citizens are not far behind.
Use of internet and digital telecom services have ballooned across homes for people now either working from home or socializing from home. The government is currently in talks with telecom companies to help accelerate the expansion of technical and bandwidth capacities and plugging Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, the only two territories without 3G/4G in Pakistan, into the national digital mainstream. Telecom companies and social media giants like Facebook have stepped up technical assistance to handle the growing digitization of work and social lives.
While the jury is still out on the quality and adequacy of Pakistan’s response to Covid-19, the national digital landscape is growing by leaps and its positive early impact is expanding rapidly. The full rewards of this phenomenon will be apparent only a bit later down the line but for sure, Pakistan’s growing digitization will be central to defeating Covid-19.