By Rhea Yaw Ching
The coronavirus pandemic has, in the most emphatic way, shown us all just how interconnected everything and everyone is. A worldwide race is underway to minimize human interactions in order to avoid a global catastrophe. The inescapable consequence of these initiatives is an unprecedented shut down of the local, regional and global economy. The latest cost estimate to save the global economy is now at $7 trillion and climbing.
The pandemic has also exposed what we all knew to be true here in our Caribbean region but stuttered over the last twenty years trying to achieve: universal access to affordable broadband services for Caribbean governments, citizens and businesses. It should now be very clear to all that such access and connectivity is vital to our survivability and prosperity.
Consider the fundamental needs of food, water, and shelter in our quest to isolate. To stay at home assumes we have a home to stay in. To continuously wash our hands assumes we have access to a regular supply of water. To self-quarantine at home assumes we have the financial capability to provide meals for ourselves and our family for an extended period.
Now let’s expand this argument to include a new reality as billions around the world have been ordered to stay at home. Conducting business in a contactless and virtual environment assumes that we have the requisite tools and business continuity systems in place. To continue school from home assumes that both teachers and students have the necessary access to the technology and content to continue a productive learning environment online. In both cases, our region’s scorecard would prove to be unacceptably deficient, and, in all cases, we know now that this is no longer okay.
To begin our new Caribbean post-COVID-19 reality, whenever that may be, we must first anchor ourselves in a single statement of truth. The truth that, while COVID-19 is class-less, and culture-less in its virulent attacks, our response exposed the truth that the Caribbean digital divide more closely resembles a digital canyon. The consequences of that truth may well be felt in all areas of society and the economy for years to come.
We must act now, in earnest to paint a current, realistic and universal baseline picture of our new Caribbean normal. Our central underpinning assumption must be that the digital agenda be universal in both intent and application. Our foundational principle must be that no one shall be left behind.
The new irrelevance of our data brought about by COVID-19 may well be the most important blessing that the Caribbean’s digital ecosystem will receive coming out of this tragedy. Generating relevant, current and granular Caribbean data has comfortably settled over the years at the bottom of the agenda. We have paid lip service to the value of producing our own data, electing instead to use dated foreign studies or worse, anecdotal “insights” to pursue our various initiatives.
Our digitalization hypotheses must be tested against the reality of where we are now; assuming that historical trends will aid little in predicting the new digital reality. Data on our current broadband landscape for Governments, businesses, and citizens is vital in building our future plans. These four foundational pillars of a healthy digital economy must be investigated with urgency and clarity.
Access and Affordability – The task of making the Internet universal and affordable is target 9.c of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet five years into the process and we are still asking the same questions. We must urgently audit our countries and communities and begin to qualify and quantify the current state of broadband. Anything less than “universal” can no longer be accepted.
Infrastructure – With multiple ISPs penetrating our region do we know where and what infrastructure traverses our seas, our land, or even our air space? Do we know who owns it and what the rights and obligations are for its use? It is virtually impossible to effectively plan and direct our infrastructure needs without this vital information.
Quality of Service – Our digital progress requires sufficient and reliable broadband for everyone, everywhere. Yet we rely on pockets of consumer feedback and ISP-produced reports to judge performance. The quality of service offered by broadband providers has significant economic and social impacts and should be monitored and managed with the importance it deserves.
Digital Skills and Capacity – In a global economy defined by technology-driven innovation, understanding the literacy, skills and overall capacity gaps of all of our citizens to be consumers and/or producers in our Caribbean digital economy is vital to prioritizing our education and economic agenda.
There is no other region in the world qualified to speak as expertly as the Caribbean on the topic of shocks and vulnerability. We may yet find another opportunity to showcase our capacity for resilience as we emerge in a post-COVID world. The real advantage might be that we finally begin to understand, harness and leverage the enormous tribal strength of our region’s smallness and emerge mightier than ever.
By Rhea Yaw Ching, Development and Transformation Strategist