File picture: IANS
File picture: IANS

How to build a digital country that will last through future pandemics

By Wesley Diphoko Time of article published May 29, 2020

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Estonia is one of the few countries that has been least affected, in a commercial sense, by Covid-19. Its business operations as well as government services were not much interrupted or affected. This was possible because this country a while ago traded its post-Soviet identity for one of technological innovation and digital democracy. This nation of 1.3 million on the coast of the Baltic Sea, 20 years ago saw the need to re-create itself as a digital country. 

Using a digital identification card and a secure electronic signature, people in Estonia can bank, apply for government assistance, file for sick leave, order prescriptions, and get medical care online without a need for mask or hand sanitizer. The key to digitisation in Estonia is a secure, microchip-emblazoned ID card issued to every citizen. It allows them an extremely secure way to sign documents, pay taxes, and access their bank accounts and public records online.

To access any basic government service or complete a transaction that requires a signature, they have to insert their physical ID card into a reader connected to their computer, or use their smartphone, equipped with a special SIM card, to punch in a PIN code. Once they’re in the system, Estonians don’t need to fill out forms, thanks to the country’s “once-only” rule, which mandates that the government is allowed to ask for any given piece of information only one time. People in Estonia need to show up in person for only three reasons: marriage, divorce, and the sale or transfer of real estate.

The Estonia model is something worth emulating by other countries. The process of developing digital countries will not be a quick solution to challenges presented by Covid-19 currently. Building a digital country is necessary now for many other reasons that include future similar pandemics. Scientists are telling us that this pandemic will not be the last. This understanding should therefore inspire the re-building process that takes into account future pandemics. There’s no better time to start building countries that will enable better service delivery especially during a crisis brought by a pandemic. In the process of re-building, resilience should be uppermost in the minds of leaders. When future pandemics hit countries, it should be possible to still continue normal life with limited interruptions. 

Key in this process is digital leadership. Few countries currently have digital leaders serving in the public sector. This is clear when one listens to the current response  to the re-opening of schools in South Africa. A country digital leader would have mapped out a way forward on how to enable schooling through digital means even for those with limited access and means. The absence of digital leadership should be  the first step in developing digital countries. 

Digital vision is another key factor in building a digital country. Currently, very few countries have a digital vision. The absence of this digital roadmap for countries is a hindrance that has impacted the response to Covid-19. Again, the South African response to e-commerce has also been interesting to watch. It’s another example that shows that there’s an absence of digital leadership in dealing with the current crisis and yet it is one critical factor in ensuring  that society can still continue with normal life whilst maintaining the required distance to avoid infections. It would be interesting to know if there’s digital thinking or leadership within the current National Command Council.

It was really commendable to watch the excitement amongst leaders about the 4th industrial revolution. Such an excitement requires digital leadership that can be matched with futuristic thinking and action. It is not too late to plan for a digital country, it may be useful when there’s a need to lockdown countries in the future. Estonia did it, other countries can also do it.

* Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-in-Chief of Fast Company (SA). You can reach him via: @WesleyDiphoko

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