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‘Global pandemic reveals digital gap between countries, societies’

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UNCTAD’s Technology and Logistics Director, Shamika Sirimanne

A new analysis from United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has revealed that the coronavirus pandemic speeds up the transition to a digital economy while exposing the digital gap between countries and societies.

The study showed the changing digital landscape since the last major global calamity, the 2008/09 financial crises. It looked at how a digitally enabled world is working for some, but not all equally.

According to UNCTAD, the global crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has pushed everyone further into a digital world, and changes in behaviour are likely to have lasting effects when the economy starts to pick up. But not everyone is ready to embrace a more digitized existence.

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The analysis revealed that the coronavirus crisis has accelerated the uptake of digital solutions, tools, and services, speeding up the global transition towards a digital economy.

However, it has also exposed the wide chasm between the connected and the unconnected, revealing just how far behind many are on digital uptake.

UNCTAD’s Technology and Logistics Director, Shamika Sirimanne, said inequalities in digital readiness hamper the ability of large parts of the world to take advantage of technologies that help us cope with the coronavirus pandemic by staying at home.

“This situation has significant development implications that cannot be ignored. We need to ensure that we do not leave those who are less digitally equipped even further behind in a post-coronavirus world.”

The analysis provides further reveals that measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic have seen more businesses and governments move their operations and services online to limit physical interaction to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Digital platforms are also thriving as consumers seek entertainment, shopping opportunities and new ways of connecting during the crisis.

“There are incredible positives emerging that show the potential of a digitally transformed world,” Ms. Sirimanne disclosed.

Digitalization is allowing telemedicine, telework and online education to proliferate. It is also generating more data on the expansion of the virus and helping information exchanges for research.

There has been a leap in teleworking and online conferencing, amplifying the demand for online conferencing software such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, Cisco’s Webex and Zoom, the analysis says.

According to Microsoft, the number of people using its software for online collaboration climbed nearly 40 per cent in a week.

In China, the use of digital work applications from WeChat, Tencent and Ding took off at the end of January when lockdown measures started to take effect.

Other benefits include using artificial intelligence to help find a cure and a significant shift to e-commerce, benefitting small and big businesses alike.

However, not all technology companies are profiting and there are some serious consequences of the rush to online platforms. These include mounting security and privacy concerns, according to UNCTAD.

The fast-paced shift towards digitalization is likely to strengthen the market positions of a few mega-digital platforms, the analysis finds.

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