3 strategies that could help countries achieve a post-COVID dividend

A man takes picture while a nurse injects the Oxford-AstraZeneca's Covishield vaccine to a man at the Dhaka Medical College vaccination centre in Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 9, 2021. REUTERS - RC2WOL9CFUL8

Image: REUTERS / Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Anir Chowdhury
Policy Advisor, Aspire to Innovate (a2i), Bangladesh Government
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  • Despite the immeasurable damage wrought by the pandemic, humanity has learned many lessons, the most significant being to reimagine government as we know it.
  • Via leveraging existing digital assets (repurpose), private-public partnerships (collaborate) and simplifying bureaucracy (hack), Bangladesh achieved significant breakthroughs.
  • The question remains: how to sustain such approaches and breakthroughs beyond the pandemic?

Economies across the world are still struggling with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While our lives may never be the same again, the future offers hope, not just because of the vaccines that are being rolled out, but through reimagining government itself, with COVID-19 re-emphasising the need to be citizen-centric.

While every nation has transformational stories to share about COVID-19, Bangladesh – a country that many had predicted was going to face the worst, both medically and economically – made breakthroughs by adhering to three core strategies: repurpose, collaborate and hack.

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Going digital with justice

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, courts were closed, aggravating a system that was already slow and cumbersome with cases piling up. However, the Supreme Court in Bangladesh took the bold decision to establish the virtual MyCourt system for bail applications. The e-filing system in operation within the civil service was customised for courts in 12 days following an executive order passed by the president.

The results were remarkable. According to the United Nations Development Programme, in the first two months of operation a total of 54,558 people received bail through MyCourt, a Bangladesh record, resulting in a reduction of 12% in the prison population. Thus, overcrowding in prisons was avoided and a major COVID-19 scare was dealt with.

MyCourt has paved the way for broader judicial reform by digitising case records, strengthening commercial justice and promoting human rights. What would have taken years through business-as-usual, COVID-19 achieved in months.

Uber-ising telemedicine

When the pandemic first hit Bangladesh, panic was the natural response with only one functional RT-PCR laboratory. We needed to pinpoint geographic locations where disease progression was the fastest in order to conduct epidemiological analysis and prioritise medical response.

The national information hotline 333 was repurposed as a COVID-19 line to enable people without smart phones (two-thirds of the population) to self-report symptoms. In an unprecedented move of public-private partnership, a collective data intelligence system – armed with AI analysis of big data – was set up connected to all four mobile phone companies.

The result was that COVID-19 hotspots could be identified seven to ten days ahead of RT-PCR tests being conducted, helping to save lives.

In addition, people self-reporting on 333 wanted medical advice. The country’s largest ever telemedicine service was born almost overnight, serving hundreds of thousands of COVID-positive patients and millions of non-COVID patients. What was remarkable was that 4,000-plus doctors donated free time every day through an Uber-like system, and tens of private telemedicine companies aggregated their services under one virtual umbrella during the height of the pandemic.

Indeed, it allowed Bangladeshis to get a taste of personalised healthcare for the very first time from the safety of their own homes, accelerating design of alternative models for cost-efficient ways of achieving universal healthcare and innovative mass health financing.

No school, no education?

Lockdowns have come and gone, but all tiers of educational institutions have remained closed in Bangladesh. While online classes have been utilised, only 35% of Bangladeshi secondary school students and less than 20% primary school students have affordable access to reliable internet. Were they to be completely deprived of any education then?

To counter this, Parliament TV, which was largely unused other than for parliamentary sessions, was turned into Education TV, with the two ministries of education developing and disseminating hours of lessons every day for primary, secondary, vocational and madrassah students in their tens of millions.

While five years of planning had not gelled collaboration between the ministries of education and parliament to make this happen, COVID-19 triggered it in nine days from planning to broadcasting of educational content.

The combination of old technologies (TV, radio, feature phones), new technologies (internet, smart devices) and the classroom – lest one forgets the physical – is now creating the basis for an innovative “blended” educational model going forward. This has been a central theme of our “Future of Education” conversation at the World Economic Forum’s Regional Action Group.

How Bangladesh reaped a COVID-19 dividend

At the core of the above-mentioned initiatives were three strategies that proved to be integral in creating the sort of response that Bangladesh mounted. As nations around the world have illustrated, responding to a pandemic is akin to a wartime situation: lives are at stake, and there is little time for deliberation.

On the cusp of the country’s golden jubilee, strategies of our liberation war in 1971 were redeployed to fight the new enemy:

  • Repurpose yesterday’s solutions to solve today’s problems.
  • Ensure collaboration like there is no tomorrow.
  • Hack the stereotypical mindset to unleash tomorrow’s possibilities.

It is in the adoption of all three strategies that made breakthroughs possible at the speed and efficiency required for them to be effective.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s call to collective action to the nation in December 2008 to build a knowledge economy by 2021 – “Digital Bangladesh” – was the definitive step in building this foundation. It is the 12 years of implementation of this vision, facilitated by the ICT Division and the government’s flagship digital transformation programme a2i, carried out by all public and private stakeholders and guided by ICT Advisor Sajeeb Wazed, that created MyCourt, Uber-telemedicine, Education TV and many other innovations to combat COVID-19.

Not building back, but building forward better

A crisis of this magnitude and pervasiveness is a shock to the system.

It empowers us as governments to re-evaluate the past, rethink the present and reimagine the future. It allows us to make decisions where rules do not run supreme but citizens’ needs do. It liberates us from the proverbial straitjacket of our past.

It shatters mindset blocks when WhatsApp and Zoom allow us to make major responsive policy decisions without convening time-consuming and expensive in-person meetings. The unprecedented collaboration among the chief justice and ministers of local government, health, education and telecommunications, seamlessly facilitated by the ICT state minister, was testament to this transformation.

It destroys silos by creating interoperable service delivery, payment and data platforms where multiple public agencies can offer services to the same citizens. In fact, it enables the government to share responsibilities and risks with private innovators by inviting them to participate on the same platform.

Ultimately, it allows citizens to access the MyGov app to truly get the services they need, wherever they need them and whenever they need them – personalised, at their fingertips, leaving no one behind.

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