With lockdowns across the world and social distancing, technology is playing a central role in communication. Increasingly, people are participating in religious services and concerts online through live-streaming. Pope Francis may have been speaking over the Easter holidays in a mostly empty St. Peter’s Basilica or St. Peter’s Square, but he was joined by thousands, if not millions, of persons through the internet and more traditional means such as television and radio. In many ways, COVID-19 is accelerating the use of technology in our work and social activities.
In Geneva, Brussels, London, New York, Kingston, Georgetown, and other cities across the world, many people are now working from home using the internet and conducting local and international meetings through some form of teleconferencing.
Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and senior officials have increasingly resorted to more frequent use of teleconferencing. In fact, recently the Heads of government have been holding emergency sessions on COVID-19’s impact on the region.
Services, such as medical consultations, physiotherapy sessions, and exercise classes, are now being provided through various internet applications. It seems that e-commerce has also increased significantly. Thus, COVID-19 is forcing many people to become much more familiar with technology, and its various applications.
Working from home has also raised again in Jamaica, and no doubt in other parts of the Caribbean region, the question of flexible working hours. People working from home, whether in the public or private sectors, are reported to be more productive and less stressed. Of course, this requires further study. In Jamaica, in 2014, the Employment (Flexible Work Arrangement) (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act was adopted but is yet to be fully implemented. COVID-19 is demonstrating that there could be merit in introducing some flexible working schedules where appropriate.
The Challenges in the Caribbean
While many developed countries have been using technology in the workplace and have adopted flexible working hours, this is not the case in the Caribbean and other developing countries. In general, these countries are playing catch-up.
However, there are definite signs of improvement over the last 12 years, during which time Caribbean countries upgraded internet services and received teleconferencing equipment through a technical cooperation program. The CARICOM Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) Special Session on Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) has, for many years, been looking at creating a Single ICT Space allowing for ICT harmonization and other legislative frameworks in CARICOM. Increased use of ICT, it is said, would aid the realization of the long-awaited CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Within the Caribbean, and especially in its public sector, it is necessary to ensure that institutions and employees have up-to-date, properly maintained equipment and are efficiently trained in how to use them. The service providers in the Caribbean also have to iron out all the kinks to provide a high quality of service at a price that users can afford.
To be honest, Caribbean residents are not actually receiving the best quality telephone and internet services from their principal providers. Security is an important issue as well and, of course, across the region cybersecurity policies and legislation need to be completed.
E-commerce, which is among the issues proposed for consideration in the World Trade Organization (WTO), needs to be properly addressed across the CARICOM region. This is where business is now being conducted especially among Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).
The use of technology is also changing how diplomacy is being conducted, moving from face-to-face meetings and very formal diplomatic notes and saving-telegrams to teleconferencing, emails, and social media portals like Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc. This is not to say that there isn’t still a place for diplomatic person-to-person contact, but diplomacy has clearly moved into the digital age.
The flexible working arrangements also need to be seriously examined for implementation. The experiences forced on the region and the rest of the world in this COVID-19 period clearly indicates that the use of technology for communication in various scenarios is workable.
So, whether people are prepared or not, the future of work is evident as COVID-19 preventative is propelling the world more into the digital age and the related reform of working procedures.
A few weeks ago when CARICOM Heads met to share ideas and experiences on measures related to COVID-19, Barbados Prime Minister Mottley said the presence of the coronavirus “could be the region’s time.” Indeed, it could be the Caribbean’s time to implement the many CARICOM proposals which are outstanding including proposals on agriculture and food security, trade in services, and most importantly, ICT.
Guest editorial adapted from CMC feature written by Elizabeth Morgan, a specialist in International Trade Policy and International Politics.