It has been a few weeks since the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) landed in Iraq. Some treated it very seriously, whilst others believed that it wouldn’t be a major issue. I was one of those people that didn’t expect it to disrupt much of our lives.
Multiple countries have imposed a lockdown situation, which has led to people spending all of their time at home and on the internet. You don’t need to scroll through social media for long before coming across posts that debate conspiracy theories or condemn the government, the private sector and Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
I’m not a physician or a scientist, so I cannot suggest solutions that will cure the coronavirus. I just want to highlight some of the technological and digital issues that are being discussed on social media, and provide my comments. I do this in the hope that it will clear up some misconceptions about the role of ISPs, people and the Iraqi government.
“Regardless of all different opinions, there is only one fact. The world after this epidemic is different than the world we used to live in a few months back.”
Issue One: They say that the Internet is slow and the government should force ISPs to provide more speed.
This, to some extent, is a myth. The large number of people self-isolating at home due to Coronavirus has led to a huge spike in internet usage. While most of the population uses the internet to enjoy their time, the pressure on the national internet is astronomical.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at CNN’s report on how the European Union is asking YouTube and Netflix to reduce streaming quality, so that Europe’s internet doesn’t collapse.
Unfortunately, it’s not so simple for us to just fix the internet. The internet is strained all over the world.
Issue Two: They say internet providers should provide higher internet bundles with reduced prices.
I think we’re tackling this issue in the wrong direction. Let me explain why.
The price of internet bundles is determined by the private sector after they have added a profit margin to the amount they pay to the government to purchase their bandwidth.
Government bandwidth cost + ISP profit margin = Final internet bundle price
Therefore, in order to reduce the cost and increase the bandwidth, the government needs to decrease its prices. The risk in doing so is that internet providers might increase their profit margins because of the increase in demand. However, with an agreement in place between ISPs and the government, we can ensure that people get good internet for lower prices during this time.
Unfortunately, we have to keep in mind that oil prices have reduced by more than 50% this month. Cutting income from other sources like the internet is an unlikely scenario for the government.
Due to the fact that over 90% of Iraq’s (Retainer Economy) income comes from oil alone, it makes it difficult to provide flexibility in other sectors and make adjustments for times of crisis.
Issue Three: They say it’s time for developers to step in and provide solutions
Yes, indeed. The past few years have seen an increase in workshops, hackathons and seminars, which have led to more capable software developers in the country.
Developers can invest their time in coronavirus quarantine to create platforms and provide them to the government for free (where possible). Governments need solutions from those who are capable of providing them.
A similar example comes from Mawdoo3, the largest Arabic content creator. They helped Jordan’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship to develop darsak.gov.jo. Darsak is a platform to help students in grades 1-12 to keep studying online without missing anything.
Data centres are not a commodity in Iraq, but the digital revolution has provided a feasible solution the government can use – Cloud Computing. We can host such platforms on Amazon Web Services (AWS), Azure Services by Microsoft, Digital Ocean and other cloud storage and servers. In simple words, hardware (computing power) is easier to acquire today whether it’s a server in your office or a digital space online.
Issue Four: They ask about the effect of Coronavirus on our crippling cash economy
The Central Bank and other entities have been working tirelessly in the past two years on financial inclusion. It’s now time for Iraqis to comprehend the fact that we need to evolve into the digital economy and start embracing digital payment services.
As for startups and other small and medium businesses, private sector entities have been developing decent payment getaways to support digital purchases. Some may argue that these products still require physical intervention, such as delivery. But delivery services are proving to be a useful tool in the current coronavirus crisis. Startups that offer online grocery and food delivery have seen an increase in orders. Online ordering has helped to enforce social distancing and of course, reduce the strain on an already crumbling health system.
Issue Five: They say that the government needs to support the private sector with a financial aid package
It is a fact that in Iraq and across the world, a lot of employees and businesses are suffering from the lockdowns.
Yet, when we ask for financial aid from the government, we must ask ourselves if we are making it easy for the government to provide this to us. Without using personal bank accounts, it is extremely difficult to receive money without going to a physical space with crowds of people and further spreading the virus. Only a small percentage of Iraqis currently have a bank account. So the answer is no, we are not creating an easy environment for the government to provide financial support.
Without capitalising on digital capabilities that support financial inclusion, we run the risk of making future crises more difficult to navigate.
It is time that we all rise to the challenge and take accountability. Although many changes start at a government level, there are also plenty of things that we can do as individuals and communities. Especially during times of crisis. We, as software engineers and developers can start producing more digital solutions. Let’s invent and innovate new educational methods, new communication techniques, and provide the government with what it needs to keep the wheel moving.
As the general public, we have a responsibility for supporting such initiatives too. We must believe in ourselves and believe in the creativity and innovation of others. We must take risks and embrace change.
It’s not easy, but it’s also not impossible.
This article is a thought piece by an anonymous contributor and does not represent the views of the Iraqi Innovators team. We accept differing views and thoughts on our platform, as long as they are respectful.