Syed Ahmar Nizam

The intense fallout of the COVID-19 crisis carries with it the potential of disruptive economic fallout. The road ahead is a precarious one, driven by uncertainty and resulting shocks to both supply and demand, affecting the global macro economy.

Having said that, banks have an important role to play in light of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Businesses are suffering from job losses, low sales, and declining profits as the virus continues to spread globally. Banking customers are seeking financial relief, and the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) is encouraging banks to help ease this very burden. SBP has directed all banks to remain open throughout the country and also encouraged use of digital and online channels to fulfil customers’ needs. Most of the households fall into the under banked categories which means they need financial services but do not have access to formal financial channels. Their only option is to visit branches even under stay at home orders, which means branches should remain open to ensure customers have access to fulfil their financial needs.

While businesses are trying to mould themselves to the new normal, banks are helping them by altering their customer interaction shielding against the spread of COVID-19. Many banks are looking for innovative and safe ways to conduct financial transactions to minimise in-person contact, making sure customers’ needs are met in the safest possible manner. World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned people to avoid handling banknotes due to the fear that coronavirus may continue to live on banknotes for days, stimulating the spread of the disease.

Many banks throughout the globe have started to quarantine bills, keeping them isolated for some weeks while other banks are disinfecting physical notes and placing them in quarantine. 

Of course, it’s not just paper money that is a potential coronavirus carrier. Bank consumers and the Government are weighing the risks of in-person banking and emphasising on opting for digital channels. In Pakistan, all banks are striving hard to set high standards. The employees and customers are the greatest assets of any organisation, and it’s important to keep them safe in such unfortunate circumstances by taking all the measures in the best of capacity, ensuring convenient solutions, and a safe environment to work in. 

Banks are trying to cut down the physical presence of the staff; however, one cannot entirely shutter bank branches and operations. Banks are strictly adhering to stringent standards to provide customers and employees with the highest quality of hygiene and health safety. The offices are being disinfected on a regular basis, and visitors are instructed to maintain a safe distance between them. As far as employees are concerned a lot of banks are also providing sanitizers, safety masks and gloves to everyone present in the offices and branches. Awareness regarding the risks is also being imparted through all mediums on a regular basis. Customers visiting the branches to perform necessary transactions are being requested to follow social distancing and are provided with hand sanitisers.

To promote a safer environment, customers are encouraged to shift towards the use of mobile wallets as they provide all services to even a layman who wants to conduct their daily transactions without physically being present at a bank branch. Through digital banking mediums, people can enjoy a variety of different services, including maintaining accounts and wallets, transferring of money and conducting payments, recharging their mobile balances, paying utility bills, availing various discounts, and topping up their wallets which are also integrated with multiple e-commerce platforms. As a whole, these services enable users to carry out necessary financial exchanges.

There lies a need for financial institutions to collaborate with each other and collectively work on more robust policies and solutions which not only help people during the COVID-19 crisis but also pave the way to increase digital payments which in turn will contribute to the economic welfare of Pakistan. Ultimately, the coronavirus pandemic will recede, and things will get back to normal. Whereas, there is an opportunity to learn from this experience. For many organisations, this overall scenario will open up new opportunities spawned by innovative models and transformations. During this time, there will be major players in the financial services industry who are able to formulate the best strategies to innovate and thrive.

— The writer is Telenor

Microfinance Bank Head of Branch Banking.