COVID-19 has left a trail of disruption. The pandemic has altered the way we live and transformed business models and consumer behaviours.

The world is starting to emerge from hopefully the worst of the pandemic. If the past few months have been a frantic attempt to contain the virus, the coming period presents an opportunity to rebuild and reshape societies for the better. As enticing as it may be to go back to life before COVID-19, the world before also had its share of problems such as income disparity and a growing digital divide. This is a rare opportunity to find more sustainable ways to cope with future pandemics, as well as to strengthen social and economic models across Southeast Asia.

Catalyst for innovation

COVID-19 might be the impetus governments need to deeply drive innovation. Many sectors that have for the longest time stubbornly resisted going digital are now compelled to digitalise to survive. Governments and businesses are now more open to experimenting and embracing technology to solve problems.

The priority now is to build on this momentum. Many of the current digitalisation efforts touch on obvious pain points such as the use of e-payment systems and setting up online presence in lieu of physical stores. But digitalisation needs to be much more pervasive. Businesses need to
rethink their fundamental business models from back-end business process automation to using insights from data to improve their product proposition.

This is where governments and tech companies play an important role. Beyond encouraging businesses to take the initial leap in their digitalisation journey, it is important to open them up to the full potential of digital transformation. In Singapore, the government is doing exactly that. It is pushing for wider digital adoption and helping businesses thrive in a digital world. Initiatives like the Food Delivery Booster Package have helped F&B businesses take their first steps online. This is done by covering part of the initial cost in partnering with delivery platforms.

But more importantly, it has also helped them better navigate the digital ecosystem by raising their digital proficiency through training and capability development, data and insight sharing, as well as marketing support and promotions. Now is the time for governments to push hard on this, whether it is steering businesses towards wider digital adoption or building a conducive tech ecosystem to support businesses digitalise for the longer term.

Looking ahead, sectors that have been most affected by COVID-19 will be most ripe for radical innovation. In healthcare, there is scope for greater automation and the use of robotics in the medical sector. Digital solutions such as telemedicine will be useful in situations where the patient must practice physical distancing or is unable to attend a healthcare facility in person.

In the logistics industry, digitalisation and advanced analytics can optimize operations and restart disrupted supply chains. The public sector also needs to keep up with digitalisation trends. Initiatives such as HIVE by Singapore’s Government Technology Agency have helped to build up digital capabilities and refine government services. Today, Singapore’s digital transformation and move towards Smart Nation have helped it to respond quickly to COVID-19.

Building the future of work

COVID-19 has highlighted how gig work is critical. In Southeast Asia, many governments classified online delivery as an essential service. During lockdowns, people who are not able to commute depend on delivery services to meet their daily needs. With greater emphasis on health and safety, we have seen innovative measures such as contactless deliveries. We also saw a shift in social behavior with customers showing their appreciation for gig work in the form of increased tipping and tip size across the region.

However, this period has also highlighted how gig workers can be vulnerable. Given the drop in ride-hailing volumes, many of our driver-partners fear losing their livelihoods more than the virus itself. But the way forward is not to force traditional employment models into the gig economy. This will only negate the benefits in terms of flexibility that gig work brings.

It is crucial for governments, platforms and technology companies to come together to see how gig workers can be better supported in the “new normal”. In the short term, platforms like Grab are doing what we can to support our partners during this difficult period such as providing a financial assistance package that pays a lump sum to driver-partners stricken with COVID-19.

But longer-term solutions are needed to ensure the concerns of gig workers are sufficiently addressed. The first step is to better understand their needs because gig workers are not a homogeneous group – some are only doing it temporarily, while others depend on gig work for income.

We can then work towards practical solutions that address issues such as social protection and access to finance for different types of gig workers. All this while also balancing the needs of consumers and the sustainability of platform businesses that enable the gig economy. This will require innovation, policy adjustments and close collaboration across the public and private sectors.”

Trade and collaboration – not isolation

COVID-19 has caused an unprecedented global standstill. Governments across the world have imposed movement restrictions, preventing non-residents from entering and even stopping their own citizens from travelling overseas. Amidst supply chain disruptions, the WTO predicted that world trade in 2020 will fall by between 13% and 32%.

While countries have understandably looked inwards to contain the pandemic, it is important to ensure that this is only temporary. The solution to COVID-19 is not to close off from the rest of the world, but to maintain strong collaboration amongst countries. Openness to foreign investment, cross-border data flows and digitalisation have allowed people and economies to remain connected despite border closures. As countries prepare to reopen, governments and tech companies need to continue finding ways to enhance cross-border digitalisation efforts.

Brave new collaborative world

Embracing a digital-first approach is critical to navigate future uncertainties. The journey will not be easy and there will be risks, but we need to come together. Many issues cannot be solved without collaboration and we will need to institutionalise closer dialogue among public and private sectors.
It is imperative to rethink how governments and businesses can better work together to prepare for when the next pandemic strikes. Platform companies like Grab offer the technology, agility and wide network that can help support governments maintain a strong digital culture. The new normal will need to focus on practical public-private collaborations to serve the greater community as we work towards rebuilding post COVID-19.

This article was written by Lim Yew Heng, Regional Head of Public Affairs, Grab