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COVID-19: Pandemic shines a light on technology

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By Michael J. Hadjihannas

Since the beginning of lockdown in Cyprus from mid-March, technology has played a crucial role not only in stopping the spread of coronavirus but also in the sense of being connected throughout the social distancing process.

As of January, the 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 17 March until the end of April 2020, the use of debit and/or credit cards has increased by 31%.

As a 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 Supermarkets, whereas 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, like Bolt Food, Portofolakis and Wolt.

Foody 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 placed 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*

The government stepped up to support the community, in addition to financial support packages.

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.

Cyprus Post launched on 6 April a 24-hour Parcel24 locker system to help the public avoid visiting post offices.

The 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.

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.

Before coronavirus, 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.

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. fatigue, fever, coughing, muscular pain, breathing problems, are required to contact their personal doctor (GP) by phone for further guidance.

Since the beginning of lockdown, multiple patients contacted their GP using messenger apps (e.g. Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, etc) to send a photo or a video to better communicate their health issues or symptoms to avoid visiting GP premises.

E-health

Ministry of Health and National Authority of E-health has 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 a trial basis in early April at Famagusta and Nicosia general hospitals, aiming to expand to all hospitals, 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 ventured into virtual reality prior to the coronavirus pandemic, using virtual tours to enable their clients to explore the properties while dealing with COVID-19 in Cyprus by staying at home has been of great value.

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 trusted 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.

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 the 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.

 The writer is Managing Director at FinExpertiza Cyprus & Global Development Director for Europe