MANILA

Contactless as the new currency

TWO months in this limbo that many have coined the “new normal,” the Philippines continues to grapple with what to do amid the pandemic that has spurned the health-care system, jobs, businesses, and basically almost everything in its path.

Every day since the outbreak, with draconian quarantine measures in place -- from curfews, hard lockdowns, and the mandatory sporting of face masks -- our daily lives have become designed to “flatten the curve.” The government has laid down the law -- work-from-home schemes were implemented, social distancing measures have become our gospel, and our runs for essential goods were our only allowed trips to the "outside world."

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the deadly virus, SARS-CoV-2, spreads through droplets released into the air, mainly through coughs or sneezes. The virus is also able to stay on surfaces for days, with several studies underway to determine how pervasive it is, most saying that it can live for up to 14 days.

No one wants to catch the virus that caused the severe respiratory disease, Covid-19.

Desperate in our pursuit of being Covid-19 free, our economy came at a standstill. Contact became currency, as everyone became more cautious. Every outside visit to the grocery was a risk, and going out of our homes meant exposing ourselves to the unknown.

Truly, the onset of this pandemic has changed the way we interact with the world, every meeting conducted through computer screens miles apart, every mundane task designed to limit human-to-human interactions, with plastic screens and face shields becoming our defenses.

What this pandemic has prompted is a long hard look at what we can do, especially with the government keen on restarting our economy. Isn’t it only right that we exhaust all means to be able to "flatten the curve?"

In the Philippines, where cash is still king, a spotlight has been cast upon the rapidly growing financial technology (fintech) industry. It seems to have only proven what experts have been keen to point out years before: It's high time to go digital.

Watching the new coronavirus disease outbreak unfold into a global catastrophe has highlighted many of the inefficient policies and outdated systems we still have in place in the country. With over 70 percent of our transactions still made in cash, our journey to keep up with our peers in terms of contactless technology is focused on.

In light of this, the Covid-19 pandemic has made bank visits inefficient and difficult, with even seemingly harmless ATM visits becoming a cause for caution.

With most banks being spread out, the suspension of public transportation has only caused problems for the average Filipino who depends on weekly trips to the ATM for cash. Most banks are located far from rural areas, where an individual has to take several trips to be able to visit.

A 2014 study by the University of the Mediterranean in France even showed that banknotes recovered from hospitals may be contaminated by Staphylococcus aureus. Apart from this, bills from food outlets have been found to contain salmonella species. A more recent study by creditcards.com even found that credit cards and ATMs can carry bacteria that cause illnesses like staph infections and food poisoning.

The push for frequent handwashing highlights that hand contact is a vehicle for the virus to be transferred from person to person, which is why we have social distancing measures in place.

Doing away with paper money, in this sense, also means less contact. Anytime we decrease our contact with contaminated surfaces, we also decrease our risk of coming into contact with the virus.

Things that are touched more frequently are going to have more bacteria on them, says Amesh Adalja of Johns Hopkins University. Money, with the way it moves from person to person, has the potential to become a carrier of germs and viruses. Isn't it only fitting that we become cautious of it as well?

Mobile apps shine in the middle of this pandemic. With smartphone penetration continuously growing locally, the use and download of digital wallets have become more prevalent. Just last month alone, app installations of GCash, the leading digital wallet in the country, doubled.

The many upsides of promoting contactless payments include bridging the gap and fostering inclusivity in the finance sector. While many think going fully digital is not feasible in the country, digital financial services have proven through time that these assumptions are wrong.

Many of the underbanked in rural areas have turned to digital payments as their saving grace. Now, they are able to receive money from their loved ones in real time, able to pay for utilities with just a simple tap.

The local government has also stepped up, recognizing the threat of exposure in using cash for financial aid, tapping third-party companies to aid the distribution of aid through the social amelioration program under the newly minted Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. Makati City, for example, tapped GCash in disbursing financial assistance to more than 500,000 Makatizens who were affected by the community quarantine.

Businesses all over the country have transitioned to online counterparts, utilizing social media and digital payment systems to keep afloat. Deliveries are the norm, as more and more consumers find ways to limit their trip outside.

Staying at home is a directive everyone strives to follow, as we keep our distance donning our face masks and gloves. An easy way to start limiting contact as more malls and shops continue operations is to continue the push for digital payments.

What this global pandemic has highlighted is the much-needed shift to technologies that will help us live through this new normal -- turning to mobile payment systems to be able to accomplish tasks like sending their loved ones money, paying for goods, all in real time, all contactless. (Ney Villasenor)


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