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How technology is safeguarding health and livelihoods in Asia

Six technology-enabled interventions by Asian governments and businesses shaped the region’s early response to COVID-19.

In Asia, deepening technological capabilities and innovations—most notably digital and mobile technologies—enabled early responses to the COVID-19 crisis. Six broad categories of measures to safeguard both health and livelihoods helped guide governments and businesses in the region (exhibit). They could also help countries in and beyond Asia as they seek to contain the current and future pandemics. In a globalized world fighting a virus that does not respect borders, exchanging best practices and experiences appears to be vitally important in combating this common enemy.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is constantly evolving, and at the time of writing the data do not allow us to draw firm conclusions about the most effective way to fight it. Although we focus on technology in this article, we acknowledge that it is not the only solution but one of a range of measures to combat this global humanitarian challenge. We also note that the use of technology in the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic does have risks such as data breaches and a deepening of the current digital divide. Further, countries differ markedly from each other economically and socially, so solutions that seem successful in some may not in others. Businesses and policy makers need to understand these risks and differences, and be proactive in managing them to ensure that technologies deliver positive impact across the community.

Six vital measures

1. Implement a watertight track–trace–test quarantine cycle

Digitization and the deployment of data at scale through collaboration among public and private players helped to contain the virus. Across Asia, governments put in place track-and-trace systems, often through apps on mobile phones. In South Korea, the authorities shared contact-tracing information with the public through apps such as Corona Map and Corona 100m so that people could avoid areas where they were more likely to become infected. Similarly, the government of Singapore launched an app called TraceTogether to track the locations of users and to alert them if they were near anyone known to be infected. By the start of April 2020, about one million people had installed the app on their smartphones.

Mass testing was pivotal. South Korea launched drive-through testing at 50 government-endorsed locations across the country in 17 days. The testing process has been streamlined to take 15 minutes and reduces direct contact—drivers do not leave their vehicles. A temporary negative-pressure room was attached to the drive-through locations to run polymerase chain-reaction (PCR) tests 24 hours a day. This approach enabled the country to test up to 20,000 people a day. Ninety-eight percent accuracy has been achieved.

Enabling heightened vigilance in a systematic and thorough manner also has been crucial. The AI specialist SenseTime deployed contactless temperature-detection equipment to screen up to 10 people a second in subway stations, schools, and public centers in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. The Chinese ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing, for example, not only required all drivers to wear masks during rides but also verifies compliance through an open-source AI-driven facial-recognition technology. (McKinsey recognizes that applications to supervise employees should be based on a broad consensus with them and with society at large and that each organization should base its decisions on its specific situation.)

Governments strictly enforced quarantine measures through a range of digital and mobile tools. In Singapore, Stay-Home Notices (SHNs) are enforced by GPS on phones or by citizens sending photos of their surroundings to confirm their locations. Text messages are sent at various times a day to people who have been issued SHNs, who are then required to update their locations within an hour through their phones’ GPS location service via a unique web link in the text message. Similarly, Hong Kong uses electronic wristbands and an accompanying smartphone app to ensure that arriving passengers stay at home.

The sharing of public and private data has been central to enabling the track–trace–test quarantine cycle in Asia. That, of course, raises concerns about data privacy. McKinsey recognizes the risks associated with such practices. Each country should take into account its specific circumstances in making these decisions.

2. Leverage technology resources to enable surges in healthcare capacity

In many instances, the rapid pooling of resources and best-in-class technologies has helped ramp up healthcare and treatment capacity, and the protection of the public. In Wuhan, China, Lenovo engineers solving IT problems around the clock helped hospitals to complete the installation and commissioning of more than 1,400 pieces of equipment within ten days. In addition to expanding bed capacity, Wuhan had an online remote-diagnosis center equipped with 5G technology up and running by February 27th. This center allowed senior medical experts in other cities to help treat COVID-19 patients in Wuhan.

Likewise, to ensure continued access to essential primary health services during the pandemic, Australia’s government announced, in March 2020, that it would provide AU $669 million to expand telehealth services subsidized by Medicare.

Healthcare innovations have helped shorten research-to-market cycles in critical technologies. In South Korea, Seegene used its artificial intelligence (AI)–based big-data system to design a COVID-19 diagnosis test within two to three weeks by exclusively using genetic details without a sample; the test would have taken two to three months to develop if done manually. In China, pharmaceutical companies have leveraged their growing research and innovation capabilities in the race to find a cure for COVID-19. After identifying a correlation between the severity of cases and the cytokine release syndrome by analyzing case reports from Wuhan, I-Mab Biopharma took only about one month to file for clinical trials in the United States for a potential cure.

3. Communicate transparent, timely information to the public

Transparent, timely, and omnichannel communication has been important to ensure that citizens make informed decisions. In South Korea, 22,000 out of 23,000 pharmacies across the country contributed data to a government-run open application-program-interface initiative that has been used to develop apps that enabled the reporting of face-mask inventories at pharmacies. Before the app’s development, hundreds of people gathered outside pharmacies at times when new stocks of face masks were expected to arrive, so it was impossible to guarantee physical distancing.

The governments of Australia and Singapore provided COVID-19 updates through official WhatsApp channels. Singapore’s Ministry of Health provides daily updates on confirmed cases, including their ages, travel histories, and contacts with previously confirmed cases on its website.

4. Go all-in on digitizing products and services

Many governments in Asia and beyond have ordered the temporary closure of stores and offices. The remote delivery of services, from groceries to education to finance, became the norm. Asian technology companies have enabled this switch by offering deeper, wider digital services.

Some technologies enhance the online-to-offline (O2O) experience and support people’s livelihoods. Within days, for example, the leading Southeast Asian e-commerce platform, Lazada, enabled farmers and wholesalers to sell direct to consumers online to avoid wasting products as a result of shorter operating hours at brick-and-mortar stores. These new sellers reported a four- to fivefold increase in the volume of orders received.

Education and job searches increasingly went online, too, as adult learners and students self-isolated. The Australian software provider Atlassian made its Trello Business Class free for one year to help teachers deliver education remotely. Rizal Commercial Banking, in the Philippines, experienced a 259 percent increase in new sign-ups for its “bank from home” online-banking service in the first three days after a quarantine was put in place, on March 17, 2020.

Other online services sprung up, as well—for example, an online substitute for families that wanted to visit graves during China’s April Qingming Festival. This year, these visits must take place digitally. The app enables people to order the cleaning of graves and to receive photographs proving that they have been cleaned and even to livestream the cleaning.

5. Embrace work from home to maintain economic activity

As remote working suddenly became the norm, the use of online communications, such as teleconferencing, soared as offices closed across Asia. In China, DingTalk experienced 1,446 percent year-on-year growth in downloads, and Tencent Meeting had more than ten million active daily users by February 2020.

In parallel, the inability of so many employees to be physically present in offices accelerated the digitization of operations and processes. To reduce the need for physical over-the-counter (OTC) transactions, for example, the Singapore-based bank DBS accelerated the digitization of 11 common trade-financing solutions.

6. Effectively safeguard and redeploy labor

Across Asia, companies and governments used technology to safeguard and redeploy labor. Grab, a mobile technology company, improved its hygiene practices in Singapore and Malaysia. The company gave its delivery partners free face masks through the GrabBenefits feature of its app, introduced policies to require hand sanitization and sealed packaging in its partners’ stores, and introduced contactless options for deliveries, such as leaving them hanging on door handles and notifying customers to collect them.

Technology was also used to help reskill workers to meet large shifts in the types of demand during the pandemic and to help people remain employed. Freshippo, Alibaba’s grocery-delivery subsidiary, for instance, hired workers from shuttered restaurants and retail outlets. The company simplified its operational procedures so that newly hired workers needed only two hours of training before they could use their existing supply-chain and logistics skills in an e-commerce environment.

Asia’s technology-enabled response is rooted in capabilities developed before the crisis

The region has been aggressively developing and deepening its digital infrastructure for some time. Over the past decade, for example, it has accounted for the highest share of global growth in key technology metrics: tech-company revenues, venture-capital funding, R&D spending, and number of patents filed. Asia has 50 percent (two billion people) of the world’s internet users, as well as 58 percent growth (734 million people) in the absolute number of internet users from 2014 to 2019. The penetration of online and online-to-offline services had already been high.

Asia’s businesses were digitizing rapidly before the pandemic. Across the region, for example, digital-banking transactions were 1.6 to 5.0 times more frequent than branch transactions in 2018. In recent years, the sustained involvement of Asia’s governments in developing technology in partnership with the private sector has been an important basis for collaboration during the pandemic.

Three sets of questions can guide preparations for the ‘next normal’

As organizations emerge from the pandemic and prepare for recovery, businesses and governments can ask themselves three broad questions to prepare for the next normal.

  • How well did your organization use technology in the crisis for the six types of intervention?
  • Do you have the fundamental capabilities in place to leverage technology, namely the capacity to innovate; the ability to tap into digitally adaptable consumers; digitized supply chains and downstream partners; and contributions to public-private partnerships?
  • How will you go forward, including launching a plan-ahead team, setting teams up to work across multiple time horizons and building speed and adaptability into your organization?

Throughout the crisis, Asian governments and businesses have adapted quickly to play their part in fighting the pandemic. They have experienced the power of collaboration and the broad effectiveness of digital technologies. Finally, they have gained experience and learned more about what works and what doesn’t. All this could help them—and countries in other regions—respond to future public-health crises effectively.

Download How technology is safeguarding health and livelihoods in Asia, the full report on which this article is based (PDF–821KB).

About the author(s)

Oliver Tonby is a senior partner in McKinsey's Singapore office; Jonathan Woetzel is a senior partner in the Shanghai office and a director of the McKinsey Global Institute; Noshir Kaka is a senior partner in the Mumbai office; Wonsik Choi is a senior partner in the Seoul office; Jeongmin Seong is a McKinsey Global Institute partner in the Shanghai office; Brant Carson is a partner in McKinsey’s Sydney office; and Lily Ma is a consultant in the Houston office.

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