Digitalisation
The Covid-19 Pandemic and Digitalisation: Czechia’s Experience

Digitalisation
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We are currently living in an age of information – computers, smartphones, tablets, and various other gadgets provide access to an unprecedented amount of information and tools, and allow for increased interconnectivity in both the private and public spheres. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, the Czech Republic, like many other EU countries, has uncovered myriad issues relating to digitalisation and its implementation. The pandemic has fully demonstrated that digitalisation is a fundamental pillar of long-term competitiveness and has become an impetus for further development of digital services. The most pressing concerns are found in healthcare and education, but these are also sectors which contain significant potential for improvement. The Institute for Politics and Society in Prague, Czech Republic, has annually hosted its ‘Digital Czech Republic’ conference, focusing on the ongoing digital revolution, pertinent concerns, and future opportunities.

Arguably the most relevant to the current pandemic, healthcare must undergo a digital transformation in order to cope with an unpredictable and volatile future. A significant issue involves data collection, and the lack of a centralised, organised framework for collating and assessing data relevant to the medical trends, such as the current pandemic. In turn, this slows down countries’ response and results in preventable illnesses and deaths. Petr Smejkal, Physician and Chief Epidemiologist at the Czech IKEM Institute, explained during the last edition of the conference that ‘we had data but [it] was dispersed and it was not easy to get access to them’. The hospitals utilised different structures when organising data. This makes rapid and effective responses to healthcare crises difficult, and must be alleviated. The Czech Republic has taken its first steps in digitalising its healthcare through the implementation of electronic subscriptions and sicknotes, however, there is also the potential to establish a central authority akin to the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In practice this would be accomplished by combining the Czech National Institute of Public Health and Institute of Health Information and Statistics. Hospitals and various institutions would also see increased cooperation in order to provide more coordinated and efficient healthcare solutions.

During the 2021 iteration of the conference, Estonia was singled out as a good example for the development of eHealth services. The success it has experienced with its healthcare e-solutions and compulsory electronic identity cards in the early 2000s should be emulated in other countries, and the Czech Republic is currently attempting to do so, albeit slowly. One of the key takeaways from the Estonian example is its prioritisation of data protection – if anyone accesses your medical information, you will be alerted about who, what, and when, and if you suspect foul play then you can submit a complaint and an investigation may be opened. This strengthens citizens’ trust of such a system and are therefore more willing to use it, making it more effective overall. Therefore, a strong legal framework is needed in any context where data collection is involved, however, it should be strategically implemented – legal issues should not overwhelm eHealth

services, making them untenable or difficult to implement, as it is the ease of access which is attractive about eHealth services. This may prove to be a difficult balance to strike, but it is a necessary one. Additionally, Florian Marcus, the Digital Transformation Advisor for the Information Centre for e-Estonia, echoed Mr. Smejkal’s comments, claiming that it’s important that ‘the general infrastructure, the electronic identity, the data exchange protocols … are being used across all the different government sectors, so the costs are shared and are not just carried by the e-Health sector’. Spreading the costs across various sectors and ministries results in a variety of stakeholders with a vested interest in such a system’s success.

Education was another casualty of the pandemic, but the experience also highlighted opportunities for change which could improve the overall quality and accessibility of educational offerings. The focus for the future of education should be on equity and inclusion, incorporating distanced learning through a variety of tools. There are also serious gaps in digital competencies and literacy, with only 39% of teachers in the EU feeling adequately prepared to use digital tools for teaching, and a surprising 32% of students in the EU not having access to the internet. As a result, the EU should explore initiatives designed to improve teachers’ technological literacy, potentially through training programmes, and expanding internet infrastructure throughout the region. Gunilla Svantorp, a Member of the Swedish Parliament and Chairperson of the Committee on Education, advocated for ‘using digital opportunities to offer distanced education … [such as] native language teaching [being] made available to more students [by using] digital tools and [coordinating] resources better’. Ideally, a hybridisation of in-person and distanced learning would allow for maximum flexibility and accessibility. This would be mutually beneficial as university lectures would be more widely accessible to both students and the general public, and would increase lecturers’ exposure.

The devastating consequences the pandemic has had on the world in the last year and a half has revealed myriad shortcomings in several vital sectors. The silver lining is that this provides ample opportunity for governments and actors across the globe to improve and expand on current frameworks, specifically relating to healthcare and education. In the coming years, additional emphasis should be placed on creating a unified and coherent framework through which data can be shared across various sectors and platforms, as well as between countries if the need arises. Countries should also consider Estonia’s success as an ‘e-State’ and emulate its successes wherever possible. Lastly, education is essential for any society, and utilising digitalisation effectively would allow for a better and more widely educated citizenry. Encouraging spaces for open dialogue on these subjects is crucial, and as global interconnectivity increases, so too does the need to bring together experts from various backgrounds to discuss the complex and intertwined issues of the future, and such forums should be encouraged worldwide.

Link to the event:

May 12: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLliiiApuBE&t=1s (only in Czech)

May 13: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q86LTwfqQDE&t=492s (English)

 

Frederik Brekk, Trainee, Institute for Politics and Society