What AfterAccess says about COVID-19

Posted by , Ayesha Zainudeen, Tharaka Amarasinghe on April 4, 2020  /  4 Comments

Contextualizing digital solutions to COVID-19 in developing Asia, via AfterAccess. Updated May 20, 2020.

Theme 1: Contact tracing

Day 1: Millions in Asia are excluded from the COVID-19 support and controls rolled out via smartphones.

App-based contact tracing can’t work in developing countries with low smartphone ownership. Singapore has seen a fair amount of success using mobile apps for contact tracing among Covid-19 infected patients. Many are developing (better/more privacy-preserving) versions of that app. But in countries like India, Pakistan and even Sri Lanka, where less than 17%,13% & 37% of 15-65 aged populations owned a smartphone by 2018, we need contact tracing that is based on simpler, more widespread technology. 
Click here for the full infographic.
Graph showing low smartphone use among Asians aged 15-65

Day 2: Even where smartphone ownership is high, new apps rolled out to monitor or manage COVID-19 must be zero-rated.

In countries like Myanmar which leapfrogged straight to data-enabled smartphones (48% of the population aged 15-65 owned a smartphone in 2016. The number is likely to be higher now), the problem is different. Research has shown that price-conscious smartphone owners are reluctant to spend money on downloading old apps or updating old ones. So any smartphone apps for monitoring and managing COVID-19 must be zero-rated. That is, users should not be charged for data required to download and use the app.
Click here for the full infographic.

Theme 2: Payment for and delivery of essential goods

Day 3: How can Sri Lankans pay for delivery of essentials once cash in hand runs out?

Cash on delivery was the preferred form of payment for e-commerce transactions in pre-COVID-19 Sri Lanka. Now many have taken to ad hoc forms of “e-commerce” to source their basic household needs. Cash payments can work as long as people have cash in hand. But now, with the ensuing curfew and banks operating limited hours, what do people do when it runs out? Mobile ATMs are great, but still might involve people having to congregate and cross-contaminate. Mobile wallets are a contactless alternative, but relatively few people use them, and it is not feasible to sign up millions of new customers now.
What about debit cards? Find out on Day 4.
Click here for the full infographic.

Day 4: More SME’s delivering essentials need to be equipped with mobile POS devices.

By 2018, 35% of the Sri Lankan population aged 15-65 had a debit card. Debit cards were also the second-most popular payment method for online purchases at the time. So now in lockdown, debit cards could be the best alternative when we run out of cash and need to pay for essentials.

But only 6% of SMEs can collect card payments. Getting POS devices to more SMEs can help alleviate part of the problem.

This doesn’t solve the problem that many daily-wage earners face though – no access to online delivery services, no cash and no money in a bank. Keeping as many SMEs as possible functioning, may help since SMEs employ a large portion of Sri Lanka’s workforce. But of course complementary solutions will also be needed.

Theme 3: Reaching the unconnected

Day 5: Radio and TV remain important to reaching the unconnected millions in a time of crisis.

At a time of crisis, getting timely, credible news and information to the public is crucial: it can save lives. Large numbers in developing Asia now own mobile phones, so, SMS, and even ring-in messages (like Sri Lanka and some other South Asian countries have been quick to implement) can be used to get information out to the public.

Those with smartphones and social media are reachable through apps like WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. Those who don’t have their own mobile but someone else in their household has one are at least reachable indirectly. But how about non-owners who live in households without mobiles?

The AfterAccess surveys show that there are still millions of people in developing Asia who neither own mobiles nor have access to one in their house. These will be the hardest to reach in a time of crisis.

If people are allowed to move about for essentials during the lockdown, the numbers out of reach may be lower. But news and information that they receive will be second-hand at best, and untimely and inaccurate at worst.

So radio and TV remain important methods to reach these unconnected people during lockdowns.

Theme 3: Online learning

Is online learning a viable option for kids in the Asian Global South in the face of school shutdowns due to COVID-19?

The reality of online learning / e-learning in the Asian Global South is far from ideal, even in Sri Lanka, which is classed as an upper middle-income country by the World Bank and, as the AfterAccess data has shown, has high level of mobile phone ownership. AfterAccess also shows us that internet use was still less than half the population by the start of 2019, and most of the internet use was through smartphones.

In Sri Lanka, where schools have been shut down from mid-March, ways of ensuring continuity of education for all are being examined. In this context, two key pieces of data from the AfterAccess nationally representative surveys become important:

1. 34% of Sri Lankan households that contain children (18 or below) had some type of internet connection by the start of 2019 (this includes connections via mobile phones, dongles, fiber connections, etc.).

2. 48% of households with children had either a smartphone or (working) computer.

This means that only 34% meet the criteria of having a connected device, and are therefore able to avail of any type of online learning: ranging from the rudimentary tutes sent over WhatsApp to synchronous classroom experiences on platforms like Google Classroom. This (34%) is on average. Poorer, rural households are systematically worse off, in fact the number drops to 21% in the lowest socioeconomic group households.

But having a connected device necessary but not sufficient; data affordability remains a barrier for many (again, particularly the poor). This is despite the fact that Sri Lanka has often shown up among the top five countries in data affordability indicators. Similarly, students, teachers and parents alike need to be sufficiently digitally literate to navigate the online experience independently; where children are concerned this means not just being able to find information, setup and log into teaching platforms, but also to navigate their internet experience in a safe and secure way.

Educators and policymakers need to keep these figures and facts in the forefront when thinking of how to ensure continuity of education during school shutdown periods.

Watch this space for findings from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia and Nepal.



  1. Poornima Weerasekara

    Yes, this is a very pertinent issue. In the Sri Lankan context the family health service worker (paaul saukya sevikawa) could be a good alternative for contact tracing, since they visit your family regularly an already know about your neighbours. While door-to-door interviews are costly and time consuming, that seems to be the most viable option. In terms of technologies, can their be SMS-based questionnaires? Short of having mobile phone operators intrusively revealing the whereabouts of a person within a certain period what else can be done? How about also enlisting the village chiefs / grama niladari?

    1. Yes, you are right. In countries such as Sri Lanka, mixed methods contact tracing would be needed. Mobiles can be used for those who have them (apps for smartphone users, SMS for others). For those without either, the public health networks you’ve identified can be used. The important thing is to minimize stress on the public health system, especially when contact tracing needs to occur on a large scale. Therefore, tech can be used when possible, and physical health workers when this is not possible.

  2. Totally agree with this issue. One possible way can be to trace all the people that entered the country possibly using sim tracing method for the last two months and then, mapping their movements within the island using the cell towers. Then, tracing every other number that was pinged during this time within these towers. I believe the network providers can share this information with the security professionals and they could coordinate with security personnel within that particular region to carry out an inspection. This way, contact tracing could be possible for basic phone and no phone owners. During this time, the authorities will have to work with exceptions to successfully monitor cases.

    This is one way the authorities can use to dig deeper with technology and contact trace.

    1. Check out our thoughts on what is possible in the Global South on the possible of uses of data to help stop or slow the spread of the disease directly in the short-run: https://lirneasia.net/2020/03/data-in-the-time-of-covid-19/