BEIJING, January 11, 2021
Healthcare and Digital Connectivity– Sectors Roused to Action by Covid-19
With the force of a whirlwind, COVID-19 visited its wrath on many countries. The pandemic has left a lot of wreckage in its wake; visible or invisible, physical or psychological. While many governments around the world have started to ease restrictions put in place to flatten the curve and bring the spread of COVID-19 to a halt, millions of people are emerging from lockdown to see a world very much changed.
Jobs have been lost. Beloved ones are gone forever. Learning the right lessons should be a top priority so the international community can be better prepared the next time humankind is faced with a common enemy incarnated in a new pathogen. Many people naturally yearn to get back to normal but normal is not good enough for many citizens in developing economies. Our ambition must be to build a better post-crisis society.
The world economy was brought to a halt when the weakest legs on the chair gave way. Those broken parts are healthcare and digital infrastructure. Much has been written about healthcare systems and there are coordinated international efforts to funnel grants and short-term low-interest loans to beef up investments in health and pandemic preparedness. Asia’s senior citizens will nearly double from around 400 million to 800 million in 20 years’ time. Healthcare infrastructure will be needed to keep citizens active and productive.
The other weak link that has been identified by COVID-19 is the vast digital divide. In Asia, 2.4 billion people are still without access to internet. Many also suffer from low access speeds. In our modern world, access to the internet can unlock vast economic opportunity. With such unequal levels of access, the scars of economic dislocations also fall unequally, with the poor bearing the greatest brunt. The key lesson here is broadband penetration needs more investment from the development and private sectors to close this connectivity gap.
On one of our investments in Bangladesh, there was a woman who was now able to use a smartphone to video chat every day with her husband who was a migrant worker in Oman. Think about the fundamental change access to this technology has had on their lives. That particular project was about access to electricity for rural households, but the impact reminds me of what many people are facing today.
For those of us who are social distancing, how would we fare without the daily contact we enjoy through our online communities for work, fun and entertainment. Now imagine if you were social distancing without this option. This is the reality for billions of people.
Wealthier countries have the digital infrastructure in place to allow many people to almost seamlessly transition their work from the office to home. For lower income people, this digital divide only became amplified in the current environment. Four billion people around the world are still unconnected. In Asia only 26 per cent of the rural population has access to broadband and women are 10 percent less likely to own a mobile, with this gap growing to 28 per cent in South Asia.
In a pandemic situation, access to the internet facilitates better sharing of information, and connection to community. It has enabled billions to continue living and working with minimal disruption. For those without reliable access to the internet, these important activities all but ground to a halt; limiting their ability to secure any income, procure necessary provisions and continue their schooling.
Investment in digital infrastructure has never been so glaring and must be prioritized by the development community. The digital divide will only further exacerbate the gap between the haves and have nots as our world moves increasingly more online.
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, AIIB had already provided support to some countries to improve their broadband and other areas of digital infrastructure. Much remains to be done. AIIB and its partners are looking to offer solutions to the bottlenecks blocking digital infrastructure investment, such as longer maturities and appropriate financing instruments that leverage their balance sheets.
We are a global community. Only through international cooperation and investment in key sectors can we be ready for the next one. The priority to invest in healthcare right now is correct and understandable, but we must not lose sight of the longer-term objectives of an inclusive and sustainable world. Digital technology has the power to transform the global economy and can be a great enabler of the economic recovery we desperately need. Given its potential impact and the role it will play in the future, I see a clear need to prioritize digital infrastructure coming out of this pandemic.
*Used with permission from the South China Morning Post where this article was first published.
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