COVID-19 boosts Asia’s digital future

Work from home-main
Work from home has become the new normal for many people because of COVID-19. Copyright: Image from Piqsels. This image has been cropped.

Speed read

  • Asian-style greetings without physical contact could replace handshakes
  • E-commerce and work-from-home are becoming the new normal
  • Asia’s digital transition hampered by the costs of fighting COVID-19

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Physical distancing enforced by COVID-19 may leave lasting changes to Asian lifestyles and work cultures.

We don’t know how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last but when it ends, sooner hopefully than later, our lives will never be the same again. The coronavirus and the digital technologies we are harnessing to fight it are changing our lifestyles as we speak.
One obvious change will come with our social behaviour. Social distancing may soon become not just an expression but actual behaviour. It may include not just ensuring physical distance at social gatherings, but also minimising or doing away with the firm Western handshake, tight embrace, or buss on the cheeks.
It could lead to the adoption of the Asian social greeting of the hands clasped in front of your face with a slight bow of the head. It has many variations, from the Thai wai or sawatdee to the Indian namaste, but one thing is certain, people may not want to shake germ-infested hands again.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen demonstrating a Chinese greeting as an alternative to the handshake as part of physical distancing measures. 
Image credit: 總統府 (CC BY 2.0). This image has been cropped.

WFH: Now a way of life?

Work from home or WFH has been with many of us for some time, but it has recently become a new and urgent mantra to leave the virus outside the house — and it is changing our behaviour at the same time.
When community quarantine was implemented in the Philippines and other Asian countries starting March 2020, business firms and other organisations had to shift to the work-at-home scheme. To participate in this new lifestyle, as minimum, you need a laptop or desktop computer, a smartphone, a fast Internet connection and reliable electricity.
The average Asian, however, cannot afford all these. Some companies tried to provide their WFH employees with the necessary support including temporary lodging. But most of them have to make do on their own. Many households do not have Internet connections, and for those who do, the connections are insecure, inefficient and very slow. Fast Internet can be very expensive in many developing countries in Asia. There is also the issue of lack of electricity — in the case of the Philippines, one of the most expensive in Asia. Think also of crowded spaces at home for most employees.
For independent professionals, however, working from home means no more alarm clocks, no fighting the morning traffic and no fast food. We wake up in our own sweet time, eat a leisurely breakfast, and move to our home office on our own terms, and perhaps later video conference on Zoom and other Apps with co-workers, not officemates, in their homes.
E-commerce is the next change happening in our lives, hastened because of our coronavirus experience. Community quarantines have limited our trips to the stores, most of which have closed anyway. Instead of going to the shopping malls, we just pick up the phone, or use the Internet to order whatever we want to buy. We pay with our credit cards or virtual cash. And the goods are delivered to our doorsteps.
Telemedicine may soon become more common, thanks to the coronavirus. No need to go to the hospital to see your doctor. Just ring him up, do online consultations, order the drugs from the nearest drugstore, take the medicine and retreat to your bedroom in front of television showing the latest streamed movies. This will mean fewer hospital beds and smaller hospitals.

Telemedicine has become an option for some doctors because of COVID-19. 
Image credit: Intel Free Press (CC BY-SA 2.0). 

Home schooling is another development on the horizon. Think of the savings this will mean to the average college student in terms of living expenses outside of home. This will also mean more modest academic campuses and infrastructures for higher education — limited perhaps just to research but not classes. But I can’t foresee having all the grade and high school kids studying at home. Imagine the pandemonium that would bring.

Preparing for new normal

Is Asia ready for this new normal — the acceleration of our digital lives? The answer is a mixed picture. Half of Asia is ready but the other half is not. There still are challenges to Asia’s digital transformation. A great divide separates the digital haves and have nots in this vast region.
In the big cities, the use of mobile phones for messaging and social media has become common. Taxis and motor bike ride-sharing services using apps to get their next booking are changing the face of urban transport and other services. Digital technology is available to various sectors, like logistics and finance, industry and agriculture, all signs of a growing digital economy.
But out there in the vast countryside, the physical and digital infrastructures are still not fully developed. Not everyone in the Asian landscape has the means to navigate this digital world.  The minimum requirement is the Internet, which is of uneven quality throughout Asia. (1)
And increasing work from home, online learning and trade could see an unprecedented reliance on Internet services leading to more data use and problems on digital traffic and connectivity.


Moving forward in post-COVID world

This is the big challenge. How do you move forward in this brave new post-COVID world? Governments in the region must invest on several fronts. First on physical infrastructure — roads, bridges, power.  And second on digital infrastructure, Internet and 5G.
We need to ensure that the poorer segments of society, especially government school students, are not left behind. This will involve providing free public WiFi hubs and training on how to harness the Internet for productive uses. 
How do the Asian countries rate? Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are in a class by themselves. The giants China and India are a mix of developed and underdeveloped areas within their huge continental nations. And the rest of the Indian sub-continent still wallows in underdevelopment.
South-East Asia may be grouped into the developed economies of Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia, and underdeveloped countries like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. In between are Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, which still lag behind. This sharp digital divide could lead to a failure of the digital revolution if nothing is done about it. (2)

“The conundrum is that because the poorer Asian countries have to spend a fortune to fight the coronavirus, it might end up too impoverished to invest in the Internet infrastructure and its accessories and make the jump from the present to the digital future”

Crispin Maslog

The conundrum is that because the poorer Asian countries have to spend a fortune to fight the coronavirus, they might end up too impoverished to invest in the Internet infrastructure and its accessories and make the jump from the present to the digital future.
But experts are confident that Asia can overcome this digital divide and embrace the digital revolution with its pool of a young and educated workforce prepared to embrace the new technologies that will lead to an Asian digital transformation.

Crispin C. Maslog, former journalist with Agence France-Presse, is an environmental activist and former science journalism professor, Silliman University and University of the Philippines Los Baños, Philippines. He is a founding member and now Chair of the Board, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, Manila.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.


1. The global average speed is 7.2 Mbps while the Philippines is just 5.5 Mbps, good enough for only 100th place.
2. The Digital Economy in Southeast Asia: Strengthening the Foundations for Future Growth (English)