The rapid spread of COVID-19 has been causing cascading economic and social stress across the world. The production of goods and services has decreased in some countries, while an increasing number of economies are feared to go in recession, with rising unemployment rates. More schools are closed, and hospitals overcrowded with dwindling medical supplies. In combating the adverse effects of COVID-19 and enhancing societal and economic resilience, digital technology and connectivity have emerged as an essential tool and alternative to the physical equivalent.
At the heart of the fight against the spreading virus are emerging technologies. Artificial intelligence (AI) is being used to map and trace infection cases. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) developed an infection trajectory which illustrates the real-time data and time series, informing us of their COVID-19 curves globally. 3D printing technologies have been proven effective in filling the gap in producing much needed medical equipment. Telemedicine is making a positive contribution to healthcare during the pandemic, bridging the gap between people, physicians, and health systems, enabling everyone, especially symptomatic patients, to stay at home and communicate with physicians online. Robotic devices and camera technology are being used with coronavirus patients and in broader communication during the crisis.
In addition to the medical and healthcare solutions, technologies help society and economy to cope with adverse social and economic impacts, provide opportunities for innovation, and enhance resilience. The students of closed schools are now learning online globally. In China, 24,000 free e-learning courses are offered over 22 web platforms, covering undergraduate and vocational disciplines. Thailand, the Republic of Korea, Kazakhstan, Australia, and many other countries offer similar online classes, which are transforming daily lives and create new digital bonding. Thailand’s Cyber University is a case in point.
Unsurprisingly, social distancing and the shift to online applications, services and tools suddenly increased Internet usage and data traffic. The data traffic has jumped by 30 per cent since the end of January in the Republic of Korea. According to the figures from Ookla’s global Internet performance, virus-infected countries such as China and the Wuhan province, in particular, suffered from halved mobile broadband speeds at the end of January to February, indicating the surge in Internet users after lockdown. To alleviate the strain on the Internet by skyrocketed video conferencing and streaming, companies are taking measures, and increasing capacity, and no major Internet breakdowns have been reported so far. Some companies in the US are also offering free broadband access to students and low-income households in response to school closures.
In this turbulent environment, the ways to maintain resilient broadband and Internet networks and accommodate the increasing data traffic have become an urgent imperative among ICT ministries, regulators and telecom operators across the Asia-Pacific region. It’s not only broadband connectivity that is required but also hardware and software should be in places where people have the skills and know-how on how to make use of them, and to create content and applications on demand. Thus, a country with a pre-existing digital ecosystem is digitally resilient and can cope with emergencies, such as COVID-19 pandemic, while countries without such infrastructure and ecosystems need to tackle emergencies and underlying connectivity and capacity limitations at the same time.
The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) has been promoting e-resilience and inclusive broadband as part of the regional broadband connectivity initiative, Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway (AP-IS). Launched in 2017, the initiative aims to enhance the development of affordable, resilient and reliable broadband connectivity across the region. As part of the initiative, ESCAP also promotes e-resilience or the protection of ICT infrastructure and the use of ICT applications for all phases of disaster management. Although COVID-19 is not a natural disaster, the same principles and methods apply to address emergencies and cope with the negative consequences. Another pillar of AP-IS on inclusive broadband is equally important to countries and people in the region. If they have affordable and resilient broadband networks, devices and capacity in place, they are better positioned to tackle emergencies such as COVID-19 and show resilience against social and economic downturns.
As we enter the new decade of SDG action, how coordinated and resilient we are to respond to crises would define our future. This emergency situation demonstrates that ESCAP member countries have been on a right track in developing broadband connectivity, promoting e-resilience and ensuring inclusive broadband. But the progress has been too slow and have not been considered as the priority yet. Now, we need to accelerate concerted actions across countries, sectors and communities and scale up e-resilience and inclusive broadband, so that each of us are prepared digitally to tackle this and future pandemics in our home countries and in the whole of Asia and the Pacific region.