Telcos may have practical solutions for the poor to navigate the Covid-19 crisis. Here's how

Mental health helplines or food distribution schemes for a few communities may not cut it for a nation of 220 million.
Published June 4, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed fissures that exist in the governance of digital services today, more so than it exemplifies the frailty of the human condition.

It may sound frivolous to talk about access to digital services at a time when people in Pakistan - about 40% - may not have access to clean drinking water, but I must insist that it is not.

In these last few weeks, my work on the front lines of architecting more access to data and connectivity has revealed to me that communicative services are lifelines for the poor and middle classes, and only mobile operators can step up to face the challenge.  

Manifestation of socio-economic disparities

  Disparities in the problems faced by different social classes are very much real and must be corrected as we navigate through this pandemic.

A wealthy family in Pakistan, a country ranked among bottom five in ICT readiness, probably has three children in three different temperature-controlled rooms. They sit amidst a pile of self-owned tech devices, pretending to finish their homework online as they browse through TikTok parodies and predicaments of their favourite YouTube stars.

Conversely, in a family in Wah Cantt district, someone has died of coronavirus, and the police have sealed the house, forcefully quarantining the afflicted village; no emergency grocery runs, no walks in the park, and no visiting relatives to check on them.

The impacted family has seven members, with five children living in one room sprawled in their designated corners waiting for the sun to set when the violence abates, and the angry go to sleep and then repeat.

In a country of 220 million, Pakistan's 50 million who earn less than 2 dollars a day are burgeoning. Food alone cannot solve the plethora of issues that inevitably arise as the result of a lockdown.

On the other hand, domestic violence targeted towards women and children is endemic, yet we find an estimated surge of about 40 percent in both declared and unreported cases. 


When technology becomes a magic bullet

  In these trying times, technology remains to be the only equaliser; undermining it is a bad idea.

Many mobile operators, such as Jazz, have taken up the responsibility and are actively working with the government to monitor and spread awareness on this pandemic; for example, Jazz has announced a Rs1.2 billion Covid-19 relief package.

Steps like these are not just impactful because there are both communication and health relief components involved, but also because telcos understand that this may be the right opportunity to help leapfrog Pakistan into digitisation the way Africa did.

It is important to note here that much of the telecom infrastructure in Africa is stereotyped with poverty yet the country has enabled tech to work for the poor.

Notwithstanding econometrics pipedreams, what Pakistan can do is not miss this technology train.

A pandemic is not an opportunity that builds hopes over body bags and lung failures; in fact, it is the very tragedy of this horror that must demand a more meaningful response from both the government and private sector.

Relief for this breakdown of systems must come in the form of open and accessible internet and telecom services.    At the national level, by interpreting telecom data, the government has begun to understand hotspots and virus concentrated geolocations.

Specialised digital teams on the government's end have also activated mass SMS alerts for those who are at risk. If you have traveled to or from a Covid-19 zone or been in contact with Covid-19 positive patients, an SMS service prompts you to be cautious.

Behavioral change is not easy, and governments, no matter how advanced, cannot walk the way to instill new habits and mindsets without working with mobile operators; public sector is also partnering with provincial governments and NGOs to curb the devastating challenges put forward by the outbreak.

In Punjab, Jazz is working with the Minister's Delivery Unit (MDU), Punjab Health Department, and Mind Organisation, a non-profit mental health care provider, to launch a Covid-19 mental well-being helpline titled the Mental Health Portal or Zehni Sehat Helpline.   Several other partnerships have also been initiated; a collaboration with The Citizens Foundation aims to serve 10,000 people and distribute Rs20 million in peri-urban communities near Karachi.

Digital financial services and products have integrated well with the national database. Through this database, an individual's national identification number allows them to receive cash directly into their mobile wallets and collect money for ration from their local merchants. 

With over 19 million total mobile accounts, JazzCash alone added close to 700,000 monthly active users to its wallet proposition and expected to see approximately 50 percent increase in mobile wallets.

Many widows or single mothers, who had never before understood digital identity have now stepped into the modern world; they now manage to receive funds by logging their biometrics at a JazzCash merchant which is usually a stone's throw away from their homes.  

Need for conducive regulations and data-driven policies

  As Jazz announced its contribution towards Covid relief, the telecom sector stepped forward and pledged over Rs5 billion.

From announcing zero-rated calls to medical services and work from home discounts, and by using digital technology to spread preventive awareness, the sector is leading the media sector into a post-Covid era.

These relief packages come at a time when the IMF has asked Pakistan to cut spending by a trillion dollars and increase tax collection by 31% if it is to keep the troubled program on track; that is a tall order.

The package from telcos also comes at a time when right before Covid-19 hit, Pakistan had the highest tax levied on mobile and data services and the lowest price tariffs offered to customers.

Despite being one of the highest tax contributors to the government, the public perception that telcos are self-serving is erroneous.

It is believed that international companies are attracted to Pakistan for its large market, but the truth of the matter is that inconsistent policy regimes leave investors nervous enough to look for broader markets elsewhere, especially in places where the regulatory terrain is not as shaky.

Arguably, we don't know much about the intricacies of Covid-19, but we can certainly see that certain policy decisions impact human behavior.

Conducive regulations coupled with research-backed and data-driven policies are a need of the time. However, as always, powerful and ill-informed individuals want to run things their way. Trump made false medical claims, and Boris Johnson ended up disrespecting his security advisory and shaking hands with sick coronavirus patients on his visit to the hospital. 

Johnson had to contract the disease and end up in ICU to understand the severity of the virus outbreak and the importance of listening to data.

There is no monopoly on absurdity.

The mere presence of science does not guarantee scientific thinking. You have to link it to scale, and decide and formulate policy. Most importantly, you have to be comfortable with experimenting.

Governments cannot handle pandemics because they fear retribution for dysfunctional systems at the polls; winning is the end itself.

In the present situation, countries that are revolutionising the governance game have one thing in common - women lead them.   Setting up national mental health helplines or providing food to a few communities for a month may not cut it for a dysfunctional nation of 220 million.

Pakistan is an immature market in almost every aspect, and Covid-19 is a larger-than-life crisis that the much-touted civilised world has got wrong.

We need systemic breakdown of a coherent national policy to tackle the Covid response at this time where the lockdown has been eased and death toll tripled in the past six weeks.

The Digital Pakistan arm of the government, led by Google professional, Tania Aidrus, offers hope that only data-driven, well-researched policy decisions will unfold.

By making communicative services an essential service, the government and particularly the #DigitalPakistan team have scored a big win for the nation.

This content is produced in paid partnership with Jazz and is not associated with or necessarily reflective of the views of or its editorial staff.