Coronavirus exposes Cyprus digital divide

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Cyprus’ digital divide is more apparent than ever as society and business are caught unprepared to work in the new environment of social distancing enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a time when health warnings prompted public services to limit their physical interaction as authorities have closed schools, the role of technology in managing this situation is more critical than ever.

However, a number of businesses are unprepared to cope with the new status quo as many of them are unable to keep up operations by going online and have been forced to shut down.

Talking to the Financial Mirror, CIIM finance professor George Theocharides said only a few organisations who were digitally prepared to have employees packing up and continuing work from home with remote access.

“But unfortunately, a large number of businesses are not ready to move all operations online, and this will cost them and the economy in general, with results to be seen following the crisis,” said Theocharides.

“The most critical point is that we are behind when it comes to e-governance. Despite talk about adopting e-governance and digital signatures, allowing citizens and businesses to carry out their transactions with the state online, we are at the bottom of the list compared to other countries.”

Cyprus seems to have technology at the bottom of its priority list after ranking 54 from 63 economies for digital competitiveness just one spot above the Philippines, but behind India, Turkey and Romania, according to the latest IMD World Digital Competitiveness ranking (WDCR) in 2019.

“Digital technologies are a key driver for economic transformation in business, government and wider society, but failing to advance in that area has taken its toll on businesses and the public sector from schools to services.”

Theocharides said the economy could be injected with cash and support measures can be taken by the government this time as it has the reserves from primary surpluses of previous years to do so but, lessons need to be drawn.

Antonis Polemitis, the University of Nicosia CEO and professor in Digital Currency told the Financial Mirror, that the digital transformation needs to pick up speed as things will never be the same after the coronavirus outbreak.

“Clearly Cyprus is not ready for a switch to an entirely digital society, as people and businesses are not prepared for simple things such as working from home. However, the virus has changed things. From now on there will be more working from home, more services will be offered online.”

The University of Nicosia, he said, has now moved all operations online with long-distance teaching and all staff working from home.

“We were able to achieve this in a matter of days, but if we did not have the experience of long-distance teaching, as almost half of our 13,000 students are being taught using technological advances, we would be lost”.

Digital leap

Polemitis said, in a sense, the coronavirus and the restrictions it has brought along with it, has forced society to take a leap into the digital era.

“If there is one thing that this virus has taught us, it’s that our society will not be able to function without digital technologies. So, everyone will have to get on board.”

“One good thing that could come out of this situation, is that it is an opportunity to accelerate the digitalisation process of our economy and society.”

The Deputy Ministry of Innovation told the Financial Mirror “that conditions forced us to accelerate digital transformation, as the only safe and efficient means for the State to respond effectively to the crisis”.

The junior ministry noted that acceleration of digital transformation and e-government programmes were among the highest priorities of the Deputy Ministry with multi-million projects in the pipeline or under design.

The deputy innovation ministry said from day one it implemented government measures to meet the software needs to limit the physical presence of civil servants and to facilitate transactions with the state to be carried out online.

It has taken steps to facilitate civil servants to work from home while also working on digitalising Cyprus’ educational system.

“Tele-education has already been implemented for a third of lyceums and we are working towards providing the software and tools to expand remote teaching to all educational grades”.

The deputy ministry said the advancement of digital technologies could benefit the health system too, as patients would not need to physically visit their doctor.

“It can be argued that a positive outcome of the crisis is the need to put into action necessary reforms that have been stalled – and it is a fact that the crisis caught us unprepared.”

“Under these hectic circumstances, we will mobilise all our resources and networks and find ways to best utilize technology to mitigate risks arising from coronavirus, learning from our mistakes and improving our systems against future crises”.

Deputy Minister of Innovation Kyriacos Kokkinos said the biggest bet was to create a mindset to accept and embrace change by showing how it works in practice.

“This is a good opportunity to do so, while at the same time effectively dealing with the consequences and needs caused by the coronavirus outbreak”.