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11 May, 2020

COVID-19: Real value of technology

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Since the beginning of the lockdown in Cyprus in mid-March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, technology has played a crucial role not only in stopping the spread of coronavirus, but also in the sense of safety, perseverance and of being connected throughout the social distancing process.

As of January 2020, Cyprus population is recorded at 1.2M with 1.02M internet users, 1M active social media users and 1.69M (140% of the population) mobile phone connections. As internet penetration in Cyprus stands at 89%, many have turned to online shopping and online payments from the safety of their homes. JCC disclosed via Cyprus News Agency that from 17th March 2020 until the end of April 2020, the use of debit and/or credit cards has increased by 31%. As further help, both Mastercard and VISA enabled a limit raise for contactless payments from €20 to €50 in early April 2020.

Platforms and apps delivering food and necessities with a no-contact delivery option have played a major role during the lockdown, in addition to numerous retail businesses introducing their own delivery service. Though the major supermarket chains in Cyprus were unable to offer direct delivery services for online orders, some have opted to join Foody, like Alfa Mega Supermarket, whereas the Debenhams turned to SPAR for delivery and pick-up service, and are accepting orders either by phone or via email. While the platforms like DeliveryMan are expanding their customer base, multiple new platforms and mobile apps have been launched since mid-March 2020, like Bolt Food, Portofolakis and Wolt.

Foody platform has been providing delivery services for around 900 businesses Cyprus-wide prior to the pandemic, the majority being restaurants and coffee shops. As lockdown measures started to be enforced, multiple businesses have suspended their operations. However, with an influx of new business and the suspended businesses being reactivated, the Foody team (working remotely, except the delivery staff) came up with a new category, Supermarkets & Kiosks. To date, an estimate of 50,000 customers place around 100,000 orders via Foody every month.

Foody Pre COVID-19 Suspended businesses Post COVID-19
Restaurants & coffee shops 900* 500* 702*
Supermarkets & Kiosks 10* 50*

*estimate

The government stepped up to support the community, in addition to financial support packages. Press and Information Office PIO published on 6th April 2020 that a new connect2cy platform has been developed under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to facilitate planning and organization of the ongoing repatriation of Cypriot citizens currently stranded overseas. Individuals wishing to repatriate are invited to express their interest through the connect2cy platform, www.connect2cy.gov.cy

Cyprus Post launched on 6th April 2020 a 24-hour Parcel24 locker system in order to help the public to avoid visiting post offices. Registered items and parcels are placed in the Parcel24 system and the recipients are notified with a message on their mobile phones, with availability to collect their parcels from designated locations within 72 hours.

Ministry of Education has established a cooperation with the Ministry of Innovation to support all teachers and pupils through the process of remote learning. While the majority of schools are using Microsoft Teams platform and teleconferencing, the universities are using their in-house existing distance learning platforms.

10th March 2020 Council of Minsters issues a mandate to close all schools at all levels.
12th March 2020 Ministry of Education further announced that during the closure of public schools in an effort to prevent further spread of coronavirus, pupils will be provided with electronic tools to study from home, including:

  • Supportive educational material, especially for pupils in the final year of high school, will be uploaded on the Ministry of Education’s website.
  • Electronic classes will be delivered with interactive material, especially for pupils in their final year of high school. Relevant training of teachers has been implemented.
  • Electronic facilitation to answer questions on the coursework from pupils in their final year of high school.

Key players in collaboration and video conferencing software, including Microsoft Teams, Google’s Meet, Slack, Zoom, Cisco, Facebook’s Workplace and LogMeIn’s GoToMeeting, are now offering their products for free in response to the global spread of the coronavirus and an increasing demand for remote working, especially for the healthcare providers, educational institutions, municipalities and non-profit organizations.

Before coronavirus pandemic, Cyprus had one of the lowest rates of remote-working in the EU, marking 1.3% in 2019. While it is difficult to speculate on the exact number of companies opting to work remotely, it is safe to assume that the majority of employees of companies providing services which are not limited by specific equipment or hardware are working from home.

Further, Cyprus launched a voluntary tracking mobile phone app CovTracer that locates individuals who may have come into contact with a person infected with COVID-19, aiming to stop the further spread of coronavirus. The CovTracer was developed in partnership with RISE Centre of Excellence and the Deputy Ministry of Research, Innovation and Digital Policy and meets the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for privacy.

As advised by the General Health System GHS, individuals experiencing COVID-19 symptoms (i.e. acute respiratory system infection with one or more symptoms such as fatigue, fever, coughing, muscular pain, breathing problems, chest inflammation etc) are required to contact their personal Doctor (PD) by phone for further guidance. Since the beginning of lockdown, multiple patients contacted their PD using messenger apps (e.g. Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, etc) to send a photo or a video to better communicate their health issues or symptoms in order to avoid visiting PD’s premises. Ministry of Health and National Authority of E-health have joined their efforts with the Department of Computer Science of the University of Cyprus to develop a remote-care platform, the National E-Health for inpatient and remote monitoring of COVID-19 cases. The platform has been initiated on trial basis in early April 2020 at Famagusta and Nicosia general hospitals, aiming to expand to all hospitals island wide, as well as monitoring patients recovering at home through telehealth.

Virtual reality has also been used as an excellent tool for both business and entertainment during the lockdown. Though many real estate agencies have ventured into virtual reality prior to the coronavirus pandemic, using virtual tours to enable their clients to explore the properties while trying to help in dealing with COVID-19 in Cyprus by staying at home has been of great value. Companies such as Altamira Real Estate, Vizus Property, Cyprino Real Estates, CA Real Estate, and many more, have been successfully showing their properties through virtual tour option on their website.

Worldwide, museums and art galleries, from Louvre, Guggenheim, Acropolis Museum and British Museum to Saatchi Art Gallery, Christies and Sotheby’s auction houses, are encouraging the general public to ‘visit’ their exhibits via virtual tours, safe and protected during the coronavirus pandemic. Cyprus has joined the mission to bring inspiration to art lovers during these difficult times, starting with the Leventis Gallery launch of the ‘I stay home – I stay with art’ program, as well as with the RISE Centre of Excellence’s project, The Cyprus Food and Nutrition Virtual Museum, now available worldwide.

On a final note, the electronic signature will be made possible via verified providers of trust services. Soon a large percentage of our population will digitally perform -without physical presence – transactions from government services, such as submitting applications and supporting documents, as well as other banking, business or private transactions with ease. Deputy Minister of Research Kyriacos Kokkinos in one of his recent interviews mentioned that “the state has been dealing with the technical part for five years now, aiming for implementation in 2021. The urgency of coronavirus has prompted us to think differently so we decided to proceed with the first stage of implementation”.

Building the necessary infrastructure to support a digitized world and stay current in the latest technology will be essential for any business in Cyprus and our island as a whole to remain competitive in a post-COVID-19 world.

Though the technological upgrade was expected to be introduced in many of the above fields in Cyprus at some point in future, maybe in the next decade, no one could have foreseen that the transition could be completed and fast-tracked within a couple of weeks, if not days.

Some argue that technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed while others the opposite. Whatever the case may be, we need to take a human-centred and inclusive approach to technology governance in our rapidly changing environment.

 

Michael J. Hadjihannas

BSc MSc ACA ADIT



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