A technological upgrade was on its way, but in the end it happened much faster than expected
By Michael Hadjihannas
Since the beginning of the lockdown in Cyprus in mid-March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, technology has played a crucial role not only in stopping the spread of coronavirus, but also in creating the sense of safety.
As of January 2020, Cyprus population is recorded at 1.2 million with 1.02 million internet users. As internet penetration in Cyprus stands at 89 per cent, many have turned to online shopping and online payments from the safety of their homes.
JCC announced that between March 17 and the end of April the use of debit and/or credit cards increased by 31 per cent. Both Mastercard and VISA enabled a limit raise for contactless payments from €20 to €50 in early April.
Platforms and apps delivering food and necessities with a no-contact delivery option have played a major role during the lockdown, in addition to numerous retail businesses introducing their own delivery service.
Though the major supermarket chains in Cyprus were unable to offer direct delivery services for online orders, some have opted to join Foody, like Alfa Mega Supermarket, whereas the Debenhams turned to SPAR for delivery and pick-up service, and are accepting orders either by phone or via email. Platforms like DeliveryMan have expanded their customer base and multiple new platforms and mobile apps have been launched since mid-March 2020, like Bolt Food, Portofolakis and Wolt.
Foody platform was already providing delivery services for around 900 businesses Cyprus-wide prior to the pandemic, the majority being restaurants and coffee shops. As lockdown measures started to be enforced, multiple businesses suspended their operations. However, the Foody team (working remotely, except the delivery staff) came up with a new category, Supermarkets & Kiosks. To date, an estimated 50,000 customers place around 100,000 orders via Foody every month.
The government also stepped up its digital support systems. In early April a new platform (www.connect2cy.gov.cy) was developed under the auspices of the foreign ministry to facilitate planning of repatriating Cypriot citizens.
Cyprus Post launched on April 6 a 24-hour Parcel24 locker system to help the public to avoid visiting post offices. Registered items and parcels are placed in the Parcel24 system and the recipients are notified via a message on their mobile phones, with availability to collect their parcels from designated locations within 72 hours.
The education ministry and innovation ministry of innovation combined forces to support all teachers and pupils through the process of remote learning. While the majority of schools are using Microsoft Teams platform and teleconferencing, the universities are using their in-house existing distance learning platforms.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Cyprus had one of the lowest rates of remote-working in the EU, at 1.3 per cent in 2019. While it is difficult to speculate on the exact number of companies opting to work remotely, it is safe to assume that the majority of employees of companies providing services which are not limited by specific equipment or hardware are working from home.
Further, Cyprus launched a voluntary tracking mobile phone app CovTracer that locates individuals who may have come into contact with a person infected with Covid-19, aiming to stop the further spread of coronavirus. The CovTracer was developed in partnership with RISE Centre of Excellence and the Deputy Ministry of Research, Innovation and Digital Policy and meets the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for privacy.
As advised by Gesy, individuals experiencing Covid-19 symptoms are required to contact their family doctor by phone for further guidance. Since the beginning of lockdown, multiple patients contacted their doctors using messenger apps (e.g. Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, etc) to send a photo or a video to better communicate their health issues or symptoms in order to avoid visiting the doctor’s premises. The health ministry and National Authority of E-health have joined their efforts with the University of Cyprus to develop a remote-care platform, the National E-Health for inpatient and remote monitoring of Covid-19 cases. The platform was initiated on a trial basis in early April at Famagusta and Nicosia general hospitals, aiming to expand to all hospitals island wide, as well as monitoring patients recovering at home through telehealth.
Virtual reality has also been used as an excellent tool for both business and entertainment during the lockdown. Though many real estate agencies had ventured into virtual reality prior to the coronavirus pandemic, using virtual tours to enable their clients to explore properties, the system has been of greater value since the lockdown. Companies such as Altamira Real Estate, Vizus Property, Cyprino Real Estates, CA Real Estate, and many more, have been successfully showing their properties through virtual tour option on their website.
Worldwide, museums and art galleries are encouraging the general public to ‘visit’ their exhibits via virtual tours, safe and protected during the coronavirus pandemic. Cyprus joined the mission to bring inspiration to art lovers during these difficult times, starting with the Leventis Gallery launch of the ‘I stay home – I stay with art’ programme and the RISE Centre of Excellence’s project, The Cyprus Food and Nutrition Virtual Museum.
Finally, the electronic signature will be made possible via verified providers of trust services. Soon a large percentage of our population will digitally perform transactions from government services, such as submitting applications and supporting documents, as well as other banking, business or private transactions with ease.
“The state has been dealing with the technical part for five years now, aiming for implementation in 2021. The urgency of coronavirus has prompted us to think differently so we decided to proceed with the first stage of implementation,” said Deputy Minister of Research Kyriacos Kokkinos.
Building the necessary infrastructure to support a digitised world and stay current in the latest technology will be essential for any business in Cyprus and our island as a whole to remain competitive in a post-Covid-19 world.
Though the technological upgrade was expected to be introduced in many of the above fields in Cyprus at some point in future, maybe in the next decade, no one could have foreseen that the transition could be completed and fast-tracked within a couple of weeks, if not days.
Michael J. Hadjihannas, MSc ACA ADIT, is managing director at FinExpertiza Cyprus