How Ready is the World to Work While Still Social Distancing?

A new analysis gauges countries’ digital readiness

How Ready is the World to Work While Still Social Distancing?

May 05, 2020

As businesses and governments worldwide scramble to adjust to social distancing, they are often turning to online tools, from webinar platforms to digital payments to social media for advertising. But as a new analysis from The Fletcher School at Tufts University shows, not all countries are ready for this new normal. Like the many other disparities laid bare by this pandemic, the digital divide is quickly becoming apparent.

If the world is to continue to work while maintaining social distancing, countries must prioritize a robust digital infrastructure. To gauge digital preparedness, researchers at the Fletcher School evaluated how ready 42 countries were to return to work while maintaining social distancing guidelines. The initial insights are the first to come out of a new three-year initiative “IDEA 2030: Imagining a Digital Economy for All,” launched in partnership with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. 

The researchers assessed countries’ digital preparedness on three measures:

  • The availability of robust platforms for business continuity, like remote work, e-commerce and digital media advertising,
  • How prepared they are for internet traffic surges and
  • The extent of digital payments options for commerce

All results are preliminary, but can guide countries with lessons and approaches from other places as they prepare their economies to emerge from this global pandemic. 

The standard-setters

Of the 42 countries analyzed, Singapore and the Netherlands are most prepared for a digital onslaught. Yet, ironically, their social distancing policies for work have not been as stringent as other countries’. Canada and Germany are close behind in readiness. As countries go through what will likely be multiple sequences of the hammer and the dance in combating the coronavirus, these countries are best positioned to work remotely through it all.

U.S.: Congestion in the last mile

The U.S., for now, is handling the 20-25 percent uptick in internet traffic, but it must prepare for more surges and continued use, especially in the “last mile” of the metaphorical pipeline--into people’s homes, especially in rural areas. Broadband access in America is among the most expensive in the world and it is not evenly shared.

Europe: Short on bandwidth

Internet speeds in Europe are on average slower and the infrastructure is older than in other regions. Southern Europe, including hard-hit Italy, is particularly vulnerable. To ensure the Internet continues to function smoothly, high-bandwidth services will need to be cut back.

Sweden stands out as having some of the continent’s most robust digital platforms and transactions, though it is vulnerable to traffic surges. At the same time, however, its social distancing policies have been less restrictive than many countries, thus fewer workers are likely working from home to cause those surges.

Pioneering cutting-edge technologies

Singapore, South Korea and China have lightning fast internet, robust business platforms and wide use of digital money—and they also use apps to find and trace coronavirus cases. Technology companies in the West have now begun adapting these innovations while maintaining strong protections around user privacy.  

China began the pandemic as the least digitally resilient of the three countries, but pioneered in its use of cluster digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, location tracking, facial recognition and drones. Its investment could serve as a competitive advantage in the digitally-enabled global economy going forward.

A gap between rich and poor countries

Unsurprisingly, developing countries are the most fragile in all three measures – access, preparedness and digital payments.  If anything, the current crisis has shown that digital infrastructure is no longer a luxury, but rather an essential utility much like water and electricity. With adequate digital infrastructure, countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, Philippines and Indonesia—collectively home to more than 2 billion people—could be better prepared for any future disasters.  

Even before the pandemic, digital infrastructure was leaping ahead in some countries and lagging behind in others. The crisis has underscored how this critical infrastructure can ease communication, promote lifesaving collaboration among scientists, allow for continued work in some industries and get money into the bank accounts of those in need.  Continued investments in digital infrastructure are needed to increase resilience to economic shocks and help countries compete in the global economy that emerges after this pandemic.

Read the initial insights published in Harvard Business Review.