The Covid-19 pandemic gives us a chance to re-evaluate the worth of two major initiatives of the Narendra Modi government: demonetization and digitization. While the first was an economic failure, with the medium-term costs outweighing the benefits, the latter has been a resounding success. And to the extent demonetization forced us to think digital, you cannot deny it as one factor in the rise of the digital economy.
The importance of digitization in a pandemic cannot be exaggerated when we are repeatedly told to maintain social distance and work from home in order to avoid infection. Consider how nigh impossible it would be to avoid contact with retail cashiers and point-of-sale (PoS) terminals if we were to use credit cards and cash to pay for our daily necessities. Today, most bill payments have moved online, and barring older people, who may prefer to pay their electricity bills at physical counters, digitization is delivering in spades. With older people now at highest risk in this pandemic, one can expect them to either change payment habits, or delegate the job to younger family members.
But digitization is not just about payments and financial transactions. Consider what all will happen as the current lockdown persists across the country. Courts are beginning to use video-conferencing to conduct hearings. It is ironic that something that should have been done years ago to hasten hearings is now being done to prevent infections. India’s judiciary has been resisting technology for as long as one can remember. One does not have to spell out the benefits, but here they are anyway. Witnesses do not have to drag themselves to court every day; they can video-record their statements in advance, and submit themselves to questioning through Skype or other such video- calling apps.
When the entire case is recorded, the possibility of judges conducting trials in an unfair way gets substantially reduced, for those at the receiving end of judicial injustice can seek retrials based on video recordings. These recordings will also enable the higher judiciary to figure out who its good judges are, and who adopts dilatory tactics and frequent adjournments, delaying justice. At some point, a judicial appointments commission will have video records of all judges shortlisted for promotions. They will thus know whom to recommend for elevation and whom to sideline. Corruption is also likely to come down.
Given the circumstances, this would be the right time for the executive to engage the judiciary to adopt digital technologies to speed up justice delivery and avoid the harassment of victims. Today, ordinary witnesses in traffic accidents are becoming victims of a justice system that needs them to come to court several times to proffer evidence. Little wonder people prefer not to come forward to testify at all.
But more than any other, it is the healthcare sector that is going to change dramatically over the next few years, again thanks to digitization and technology. In the current Covid-19 crisis, doctors and nurses are putting themselves at huge risk, and so are those handling millions of samples of throat swabs that need to be analysed for the virus. Front-line doctors, who have to recommend patients for tests, are also at risk, and so are doctors who need to be physically close to their patients while operating. And let’s not forget, sick people sitting next to each other outside a consulting room are at infection risk themselves.
Remote patient examinations, analysis of symptoms with the help of databases and algorithms, and even the basic task of taking down a new patient’s medical history can all be done remotely through a digital app or interface. The doctor will know even before he has met the patient what could be wrong, something she only has to confirm after interacting with the patient. Not for nothing did ace investor Vinod Khosla famously ask whether we needed more doctors or more algorithms. India is spending humongous amounts of money, and so are to-be doctors, to master medical knowledge that doubles every 75 days. In short, by the time your average MBBS doctor completes his or her degree, much of that knowledge could be outdated. He or she has to use technology to update himself or herself, and also rely on databases and artificial intelligence to deliver healthcare without the risk of misdiagnosis.
India may be spending too much on training doctors at a cost of millions of rupees per head, when a lot of that money could have been spent on technology to deliver competent and lower-cost healthcare. It might also be worthwhile to let practitioners of traditional medicine, such as ayurveda and unani, to take shortened courses to deal with your average walk-in patient. Referral of a Covid-19 suspect can easily be done by them, since it is ultimately the throat swab and diagnostic tools that will determine if someone is infected or not.
If we just stop to think where we would have been in this pandemic but for digital technology, we would recognize the importance of going digital. It should make us think of how to convert the Covid-19 disruption into an agenda that brings us up to technological speed in various spheres of human activity.