The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) urged today for ensuring and universalizing connectivity and the affordability of digital technologies to address the many impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the region. To this end, it proposed five lines of action that include building an inclusive digital society, driving a productive transformation, fostering digital trust and security, strengthening regional digital cooperation, and moving towards a new governance model to ensure a “digital welfare state” that would promote equality, protect the population’s economic, social and labor rights, guarantee the secure use of data, and fuel progressive structural change.
ECLAC’s Executive Secretary, Alicia Bárcena, unveiled during a press conference the institution’s Special Report COVID-19 No. 7, entitled Universalizing access to digital technologies to address the consequences of COVID-19, which proposes to the region’s countries ensuring a basic basket of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) made up of a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet and a connection plan for households that are not connected, at an annual cost of less than 1% of GDP.
The report presented today highlights the importance that digital technologies have had for the functioning of the economy and society during the crisis prompted by the coronavirus disease pandemic. Progress that was expected to take years to materialize has been made in a matter of months. However, access gaps affect the right to health, education and work, and can also widen structural gaps and increase socioeconomic inequalities.
“The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have taken measures to encourage the use of technological solutions and to ensure the continuity of telecommunications services. However, the scope of these actions is limited by gaps in access to and use of these technologies and by connection speeds,” Alicia Bárcena said upon presenting the report.
According to the document, in 2019, 66.7% of the region’s inhabitants had an Internet connection. The remaining third had limited or no access to digital technologies due to their economic and social status, particularly their age and location. In 12 countries of the region, the percentage of households in the highest income quintile (quintile V) that have an Internet connection is 81% on average, while the figures for households in the first and second quintiles are 38% and 53%, respectively.
The differences in connectivity between urban and rural areas are significant. In the region, 67% of urban households are connected to the Internet, while in rural areas only 23% are. In terms of age groups, young people and older adults have less connectivity: 42% of those under 25 years of age and 54% of people older than 66 are not connected to the Internet.
The report adds that the low degree of affordability reinforces the exclusion of lower-income households. The cost of mobile and fixed broadband services for the population in the first income quintile accounts for 14% and 12% of their income, respectively. This is around 6 times the reference threshold of 2% of income recommended by the United Nations Broadband Commission.
The study reveals that mobility data during the first months of lockdown show a world that was paralyzed physically, but not virtually. Website traffic and the use of applications for teleworking, online education or distance learning, and online shopping reveal a significant increase in the use of digital solutions. Between the first and second quarters of 2020, the use of teleworking solutions surged by 324% while distance education rose more than 60%.
However, the use of distance learning solutions is only possible for those with an Internet connection and devices that enable access, and in Latin America 46% of children between 5 and 12 years of age live in households that have no connectivity. Households’ access to digital devices is also unequal in the region: while between 70% and 80% of students from the highest socioeconomic levels have laptops in their homes, only between 10% and 20% of students in the lowest income quintiles have these devices.
“The difference between the highest and lowest economic strata affects the right to education and deepens socioeconomic inequalities. To ensure inclusive and equitable education and promote learning opportunities throughout the education cycle, not only must connectivity and digital infrastructure be improved, but also the digital skills of teachers and professors, and educational content must be adapted to the digital environment,” ECLAC’s Executive Secretary emphasized.
With regard to the percentage of jobs that can be shifted over to teleworking, the report notes that this is positively linked to the level of per capita GDP and to lower degrees of labor informality. In Europe and the United States, nearly 40% of workers can work from home, whereas in the case of Latin America, ECLAC estimates that around 21.3% of employed persons could engage in teleworking.
The document highlights that the Internet is mitigating the impact of the crisis on companies. It states that between March and April 2020, the number of business websites jumped by 800% in Colombia and Mexico and around 360% in Brazil and Chile. In June 2020, the online presence of retail companies surged by 431% compared with June 2019.
Finally, the report indicates that the post-pandemic period will be characterized by new demand patterns based on online channels that will require efforts by countries and the private sector to deliver better services. Meanwhile, new supply patterns will be based on flexibility, local proximity and response capacity.
“Productivity and structural change will remain central to development. The region must move towards more diversified, homogeneous and integrated productive systems that incorporate technology at all stages in order to increase productivity, competitiveness and productive inclusion, which will lead to higher employment levels and wages,” Alicia Bárcena concluded.