Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Coronavirus accelerates Greece's overdue digital revolution

 This article was published by Al Jazeera International
Athens, Greece- While national lockdowns to stop the spread of coronavirus are ravaging economies around the globe, for Greece the pandemic is forcing a rapid and long overdue embrace of digital platforms that is placing Greek businesses and the government on stronger footing - no matter what comes after coronavirus. 
"Remote work is moving forward in leaps and bounds, and could leave us with an important legacy [after the crisis]," says Marco Veremis, a technology entrepreneur and angel investor.
Hundreds of employees at Upstream,  a mobile technology firm Vermis co-founded, have been working remotely for three weeks, communicating via Slack the business-to-business messaging service, and video conferencing services like Google Hangouts, Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
But Veris is even more heartened by how quickly his less-tech savvy clients have adapted to doing business under lockdown.
"A very large chunk of the marketplace is now being educated by the crisis," he told Al Jazeera. 
Supermarkets in the country are a case in point. Social distancing measures mandate that grocery stores have only one customer per 15  square metres. Rather than queue in physical lines or risk exposure by venturing outdoors, droves of customers have taken to shopping online - many for the first time in their lives.
Banks have yet to publish the latest figures on credit card use, but anecdotal evidence of the surge in online grocery transactions is on display at peak shopping times, when supermarket web platforms are turning away digital customers.
An overnight revolution years in the making
The Greek economy has been slow to move online in a meaningful way, in part because of the burden it places on small businesses. Firms with fewer than 20 employees account for 9 out of every 10 jobs in Greece. 
But the necessities of effectively managing the coronavirus outbreak are forcing consumers to stay home and motivating businesses and the government to make the long-talked about digital revolution happen virtually overnight.
To help smaller firms adapt to rapidly emerging remote marketplaces, the government launched digitalsolidarity.gov.gr - a platform where more tech savvy large corporations provide free online marketing and account management training to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).
"Most websites belonging to retail shops used to just post the opening times. Now there's an announcement saying, 'we may be closed but we are ready to serve you digitally'," says Diomidis Spinellis, professor of software engineering and head of theDepartment of Management Science and Technology at the Athens University of Economics and Business.
Spinellis - a tireless campaigner for greater public sector transparency - also sees the emergence of a more robust e-government as a giant leap toward making the government more efficient and accountable.  
Despite recent improvement, Greece still ranks among the lowest countries in the European Union for transparency, according to Transparency International, even below most of its formerly communist neighbours that have enjoyed market economies and democracies only since 1990.
But in the span of a few weeks, the ruling New Democracy Party has placed scores of online and mobile state services on a single platform- gov.gr
"There were some 500 e-government processes when the Coronavirus hit, but they were scattered and many people didn't even know of their existence. What we did was to incorporate them into one platform," digital governance minister Kyriakos Pierrakakis told Al Jazeera.  "We have also added more functions that have proven to be the most popular such as e-prescriptions and e-powers of attorney."
Pierrakakis says e-prescriptions alone attracted 200,000 users in ten days.
The move is one which prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been keen to highlight. In parliament on April 2, he called gov.gr "the portal of the new, digital state".
Education is also undergoing a lightening transformation. Greece closed public schools on March 10. Even though it had no distance learning infrastructure in place, high school and middle school students were being taught digitally just two weeks later.  
"We managed to do in a few weeks what we were planning to do in months and what others didn't do for years," said Mitsotakis, who came to power last year promising an innovative, digital economy and a state made less expensive through e-government.
Driven by necessity
Greece has nearly 2000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 87 people in the country have died of the disease, according to Johns Hopkins University - statistics that are on the lower side compared to similar EU countries with similarly sized populations. 
Athens respond to the unfolding crisis swiftly. Greece reported its first case of Covid19 on February 27. Schools were closed on March 10, and the following week all non-essential retail activity, conferences, the hospitality industry, and church services were halted. Towards the end of March, businesses were asked to institute remote work protocols and public schools launched distance learning.
There are no official forecasts yet of the expected toll the outbreak could take on Greece's economy, but most economists agree the country will fall into a deep recession. The government has announced an emergency stimulus package to shore up workers and businesses worth 6.8bn euros ($7.4bn), financed by the European Central Bank.
At this stage it is difficult to quantify to what degree digitisation is helping to lessen the blow now or how quickly it could help the economy bounce back when the health crisis ebbs. But digitization has eliminated social distancing measures as a barrier to to future fiscal aid packages. The government launched an encrypted e-signatures protocol that is now enabling the cabinet to introduce, securely share and sign bills. 
The digitization drive is also making it easier for authorities to track the virus' progression. 
"Look how simply the lockdown is being monitored," says Veremis. "You send a text message and you're self-accountable," he says, referring to the government stipulation that Greeks must report whenever they venture out of doors via their mobile phones.
"There are spot checks by police and if you're caught you pay a serious fine. That's a microcosm of the digital relationship that should exist between people and the state... Both needed a big shock like this to show each other trust and move on to simple procedures outside the [state] bureaucracy, which was self-sustaining."
Limits to what digitisation can fix
While digitization will help Greece businesses become more competitive, some sectors of the economy cannot move entirely online.  
One of Greece's flagship industries, tourism, cannot substitute digital services for the real thing. "If the entire tourist season is lost, [a recession of about 10 percent for 2020] is unavoidable," one economist told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
For many Greeks that would mean a temporary return to the dark days of the Eurozone crisis of 2010-17, when the economy severely contracted and unemployment soared.
Greece is among nine EU members demanding the issuance of joint EU debt to help finance the fight against a coronavirus-induced recession. 
"If the crisis is manageable a month from now, we can say that certain lessons were learned. For example, we can't rely on three months of tourism; we need better public sector connectivity; we need more innovation and manufacturing," says Nikos Vettas, head of the Institute for Economic and Industrial Research, a think-tank. "But if the crisis goes on to the autumn, the damage will be so deep it will affect public financial stability, the the stability of the financial sector."

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