The shifts in consumer behaviour due to the COVID-19 outbreak are expected to alter the trajectory of digital economy development in ASEAN economies, said a World Bank economist.
Digital services and applications such as mobile payments, food delivery, online shopping, social media, instant messaging, and online entertainment have helped people in isolation (or under lockdown) to feel connected and remain socially and economically active.
The novel coronavirus crisis has also driven up demand for digital applications for teleworking, education, healthcare, electronic and mobile payments and e-commerce.
“It is likely that these trends might moderate with the passing of the immediate crisis. However, some of the shifts in behaviour, and the exposure to new ways of doing things might alter the trajectory of digital economy development globally, and the ASEAN economies are no exception,” said Richard Record, lead economist for Malaysia at the World Bank, in an email reply to DealStreetAsia.
Citing how smartphones and video streaming sites have already altered how and where people consume media, Record said similar shifts are likely to occur as the virus pushes people to stay online longer.
The digitally connected stand a better chance
Digitally connected countries, businesses, and people are likely to be in a better position to adapt to the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike other public health crises, the current situation demands greater use of digital services over good quality and resilient broadband infrastructure.
“Access to digital infrastructure and digitally-enabled services and applications are essential to mitigate and contain the spread of coronavirus, cope with social distancing measures, and ensure business continuity of government and the private sector,” Record said.
Countries that are not able to use digital as the new normal for work, education, government services and social activities will be left behind, especially as the current crisis continues to persist and concerns over preparedness for similar events in the future rise.
ASEAN lags behind in ICT adoption
In the ASEAN economies, there is a wide variation in internet penetration as many countries still lag behind in the adoption of information and communication technologies.
According to 2018 data compiled by the World Bank, only Singapore in the region is considered well-connected with an 88.2 per cent internet adoption. It is followed by Malaysia (81.2 per cent), Vietnam (70.3 per cent), the Philippines (60.1 per cent), Thailand (56.8 per cent), Cambodia (40 per cent), Indonesia (39.9 per cent), Myanmar (30.7 per cent) and Laos (25.5 per cent).
Record opined that countries most affected by issues of lack of access, affordability, congestion and quality of service are those with limited penetration of good quality fixed and mobile broadband connectivity, reduced availability of spectrum for mobile broadband, limited and insufficiently redundant international bandwidth and relatively low recent investment in domestic telecommunications access and infrastructure due to weak regulatory regime or obstruction to fair competition.
In areas already covered by broadband networks, affordability issues with respect to accessing broadband services are also affecting the more vulnerable segments of society.
“Governments across the region need to consider how they might respond to this crisis in a way that unlocks digital dividends in the longer-term for more people and businesses,” he said, adding that the governments can take measures to increase access to affordable broadband services through public policy and by addressing market bottlenecks. It would be worthwhile to consider such steps as part of the crisis response.
According to him, digital technologies should be a key element of countries’ responses to the pandemic and its aftermath, and to build resilience for such crises in the future.
For instance, digital services and applications are currently being used in conjunction with data analytics techniques and processes to assist healthcare professionals in areas such as tracing, monitoring, procurement, deployment of staff and facilitating public health research.
Meanwhile, digital services and applications that facilitate remote work for the public and private sectors, along with e-learning services and platforms, are also key solutions for minimizing disruption to school and work and ensuring business continuity in the face of social distancing.
“From the governments’ perspective, digital technologies are also essential for continuing public service delivery, ensuring access to information, and facilitating crisis response,” said Record, highlighting the importance of preparing for similar, future crises, as limited digital capabilities of various constituencies become more pronounced.