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Caricom countries including T&T would have been better placed to manage the COVID-19 situation had the time frames and schedules of the Vision and Roadmap of Caricom Single ICT Space been maintained, the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) has noted in its latest report.

It said the COVID-19 pandemic has made it imperative that Caricom states redouble their efforts to forge ahead with higher levels of meaningful interaction and collaboration in the development of digital solutions which are the new dynamics for economic and social development.

“The silo, country approach to digitisation will not advance the interest of Caricom states,” the report warned.

In keeping with Caricom’s 2014 decision to establish the region as a Single ICT Space, in February 2017 the Heads of Government approved the Vision and Roadmap for the Caricom Single ICT space to guide its implementation.

The overarching objective of the Single ICT Space is to provide the digital layer to underpin the Caribbean Single Market Economy

The report noted that to date however, outcomes have not been realised because the needed human and financial resources required for the implementation of the Caricom Single ICT Space initiative have not been allocated.

It said the most significant outcomes resulting from a Caricom Single ICT Space are ubiquity and consistency of ICT services across the Caribbean community at affordable prices to citizens.

Other outcomes include:

• Equitable, affordable access to broadband information and communication technologies which are secure, ubiquitous and reliable; and which facilitate the rapid acquisition, processing and dissemination of information;

• The use of ICTs to gather information and knowledge analyse and disseminate it effectively for citizens’ social and economic progress;

• Enhancement of regional trade, innovation, competitiveness and citizen welfare; and

• Practical support for the realisation of the Caricom digital economy.

“While some countries have progressed their national agendas for digitisation, regional cooperation and collaboration are absent,” the report said.

Accordingly, it added the region may be duplicating efforts and wasting scarce resources as each country develops its digital plan in silos.

“We must not allow these successes to deter us from a more holistic approach to regional digitisation,” the CTU said.

According to the World Bank, the global digital economy accounted for 15.5 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016 ($11.5 trillion)

In 2019, the Digital Economy Report of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, noted that the combined value of the platform companies with a market capitalisation of more than $100 million was estimated at more than $7 trillion in 2017; 67 per cent higher than in 2015.

The report emphasised that digitisation will enhance the competitiveness not only in T&T but among Caricom States and if Caribbean countries miss capitalising on this opportunity in a timely fashion, they will do so at their peril.

To accelerate the development of a digital economy in Caricom, heads of state must have a mindset change to focus on a more robust approach to digitisation, the report said, adding that this approach must have a strong overarching digital vision, an appropriate governance structure, a proliferation of digital initiatives generating public value in measurable ways and a healthy digital culture.

It noted that in the 2019 competitiveness ranking only Jamaica achieved a ranking under 100 out of 191 evaluated countries.

“There is much room for improvement in the rankings for all the Caricom States selected for evaluation. Digitisation has a vital role to play in improving our competitiveness. We must work towards enhancing these results to advance our ability to attract investments in the emerging industries.

“We must commit to improving the opportunities for Caricom citizens to participate in the world that is increasingly driven by digitisation,”the report advised.

It said the digital economy is the undisputed driver of the fourth industrial revolution that is providing both opportunities and challenges to global growth, the CTU said.

Therefore, Caricom States must become active participants in this revolution and position themselves to leverage digital opportunities to cope with problems and participate in the digital economy for inclusive economic growth and development.

The G20 Digital Economy Development and Cooperation Initiative defines the digital economy as “a broad range of economic activities that include using digitised information and knowledge as the critical factor of production, modern information networks as a vital activity space, and the effective use of information and communication technology (ICT) as an essential driver of productivity, growth and economic structural optimisation.”

The Technology Response

The pandemic has forced some very fundamental changes in social interactions and business dealings.

To contain the spread, countries closed their borders to avoid imported cases, locked down non-essential businesses; limited the numbers of persons gathering in public spaces; introduced stay at home rules, limited the use of public transportation and amended laws to enforce the new regulations and prohibitions.

During the pandemic Netflix subscribers increased by 15.8 million, more than two times its projected 7.0 million, as at March 31.

Zoom experienced similar exponential growth in meeting participants of 300 million up from 10 million in December 2019.

The report said in the Caribbean, employers encouraged employees to work from home to comply with the new public health regulations.

It noted that all Caricom countries adopted partial digital solutions to administer their stimulus packages.

It said very few of these solutions offered a complete end-to-end service.

“In many cases, the extent of the digital application was the ability to download a form to make an application for the support offered.

“These procedures were not in alignment with the social distancing guidelines, as applicants had to submit the completed form in person,” the report said.

It noted that young entrepreneurs in some countries developed apps and took to social media to share information on the COVID-19 pandemic situation.

“We must not allow these successes to deter us from a more holistic approach to regional digitisation,” the report added.