Pandemic Preparedness and Network Readiness in Latin America

This blog post is part of a series where Portulans staff perform analysis of countries and regions covered by the Network Readiness Index.

What Just Happened?

Latin America is the world’s new hotspot for the coronavirus. As of early August, there are over four million cases of the coronavirus in Latin America, with more than 2.27 million in Brazil alone. As noted by the UNDP’s latest report, the region is facing the worst recession in a century, an explosion of poverty and inequality,[1] and the dangerous reversals of human rights and civil liberties as a result of the pandemic. 140 million people, or around one-quarter of the region’s population, are at high risk of contracting the virus.

Clearly, the pandemic has exacerbated existing regional risks to a unique boiling point. Yet the consequences of the pandemic’s severe health, economic and political toll are not uniform: while Brazil has recorded over 2.27 million cases and has plunged into political and social chaos,[2] Costa Rica’s swift response resulting in fewer cases and fewer deaths has been celebrated across the region (in fact, they’ve just reopened their borders to European, British and Canadian tourists).

There is much discussion about the political diversity of pandemic responses in Latin America. And while this is a promising research avenue, this blog instead casts a spotlight on a quieter conversation: network readiness and pandemic preparedness. Our investigating question here is whether Latin American countries better positioned on the NRI are also better positioned to swiftly respond to a public health crisis.

Network Ready, Pandemic Prepared? Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica

For almost two decades, the Network Readiness Index has served as a tool for gauging readiness for (meaning the ability to adopt and benefit from) digital transformation among global economies, grounded in four fundamental dimensions: Technology, People, Governance, and Impact. Check out our interactive map below to explore the region.

What does the NRI tell us about the region’s top three performing economies? And is there any evidence that performing highly on the index may indicate a more comprehensive, network-ready, and digitally-enabled pandemic response?

For instance, Chile, a country of 18.7 million people, ranks 26th on the Gini Inequality Index (with a score of 46.60) and 42nd on the NRI. Chile is the leading Latin American country on our index due to its excellence in ICT usage and skills among Individuals (20th) and Businesses (41st), boosting its performance on the People (41st) pillar. Chile sees high performance in Governance (39th) due to high levels of Trust (42nd) and Regulation (39th). Chile’s main weakness is Impact (54th), meaning its Economy and Quality of Life sub-pillars perform poorly relative to others. However, it is worth pointing out that Chile remains Latin America’s top-performing country on the 2019 Global Innovation Index (51st) and the 2020 Global Talent and Competitiveness Index (34th).

Yet Chile’s pandemic response is markedly less optimistic. According to a survey conducted in Chile in mid-March, 64% of respondents did not agree

that the government was prepared for the pandemic crisis. Globally, the country has one of the highest numbers of cases relative to population size: “more cases than we are able to handle”, according to Professor Thomas Leisewitz of the Chilean Pontificia Universidad Catolica. Onlookers such as journalist Andrea Insunza note that Chile’s deeply entrenched inequalities and poor public health system are to blame for a crisis that led to fissures between the medical community and government.

Thus, while Chile ranks better than its neighbors in network readiness, its structural problems and lack of coordinated response have resulted in 9,707 COVID-19 fatalities and over 361,000 confirmed cases.

Turning to Uruguay (3.45 million people, ranks 63rd on the Gini Inequality Index) is the region’s second top-performing economy on the 2019 NRI (ranked 46th globally). Uruguay’s high performance can be attributed to its performance on the People pillar (42nd), due to the Individuals (30th) and Governments (31st) indicators, within which the use of virtual social networks (10th) and publication and use of open data (17th) are particularly strong. Uruguay’s main weaknesses are its performance on the Governance (50th) and Impact (50th) pillars, within which the ICT regulatory environment (101st) is particularly weak. However, on the GII, Uruguay (ranking 62nd globally) shows higher scores than the regional average in the Innovation Output pillars, including ICTs, e-government, and e-participation adoption. And in the GTCI, Uruguay (51st) ranks 4th in the region.

Unlike Chile, Uruguay’s pandemic response has been globally acclaimed, celebrated by some onlookers as the “New Zealand of Latin America”. As noted by Giovanni Escalante, the country’s World Health Organisation (WHO) representative, Uruguay’s success should be attributed to the highly efficient public health system, strong leadership from the health sector in partnership with President Luis Lacalle Pou’s government, and their “smart strategies”, including encouraging digital innovation and activating e-governance tools. Namely, Agesic has developed an official Coronavirus UY app and launched a virtual chatbot (which can be embedded on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger) to provide information on government and healthcare provider websites. Most of the population has digital health records, sorted by a machine-learning algorithm to determine high-risk individuals and manage resources efficiently. In fact, according to Uruguay’s agency for trade and investment, Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai has celebrated the country’s “innovative approach to harnessing technology for social good”.

Finally, Costa Rica (5 million people, ranked 19th by Gini) is the region’s third-best performing economy on the NRI, ranked 50th globally. Costa Rica performs particularly well on the Impact pillar (37th) due to its high ranking in Quality of Life (25th). Similarly, Costa Rica’s moderately low performance for the People pillar (56th) is mitigated against by the high performance of network-ready Individuals (31st). This talent is reflected by the GTCI (37th) and its high performance in innovation markers by the GII (55th), such as ICT use (46th): although it is worth noting that ICT access is more generally ranked 67th.

Costa Rica’s digital response has also been globally celebrated. Since 2017, the Single Digital Health Record has enabled the national digitization of patient records, which has in turn enabled comprehensive “risk tests” and symptom tracking online. In May, Costa Rica supported the WHO’s launch of an international project designed to share intellectual property, scientific data and COVID-19 “best practices”: the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool. President Carlos Alvarado commented that “vaccines, tests, diagnostics, treatments, and other key tools in the coronavirus response must be made universally available as global public goods”.

As explained by the country’s WHO representative, Costa Rica’s success can be attributed to a rapid response based on “facts and scientific evidence”, with the highly coordinated support of regulatory institutions which fostered ICT adoption, including making extensive investments in backhaul infrastructure and supporting a substantial jump in smartphone adoption, universal service funds to safeguard connectivity as significant swathes of the economy moved online, and a “responsible” society, all the while “avoiding complacency”.

What Does It All Mean?

What lessons can we draw from the NRI’s top-three performing economies in the region, and what does this mean for pandemic preparedness?

While network readiness in itself does not guarantee pandemic preparedness, tech access and use are critical for crisis response. However, the impact of network readiness on pandemic-prepared economies seems to be intrinsically linked to issues of structural inequality and multi-stakeholder coordination (based on expert knowledge as opposed to political power struggles). The positive alignment of inclusivity, coordination, and readiness is crucial for a swift and effective crisis response.

Notably, some of the NRI’s top-performing regional economies – such as Chile (42nd) and Brazil (59th) – are glaring examples of catastrophic ill-preparedness. While Chile is a recognized regional innovator with a strong performance in ICT usage indicators, a brief survey suggests that deeply entrenched inequalities in meaningful connectivity may be posing obstacles to e-governance solutions to tracking and response.

The best responses are data-driven and rooted in citizen engagement. Both Uruguay and Costa Rica have leveraged data collection and rapid sharing of relevant information in order to improve the efficiency and accuracy of handling the pandemic. Crucially, services designed to collect and digitize health data were institutionalized before the pandemic. Costa Rica’s Single Digital Health Record – downloaded and deployed by 30% of citizens – served as a platform for coronavirus-specific functions.

But political coordination is make-or-break. In June, Chile’s Minister of Health was replaced amid controversy about reported figures and tension between the government and the medical community. Dangerously, this tension is several years in the making. Political disagreements have also rocked Mexico (57th), Argentina (58th), and Brazil (59th) at the expense of coordination. On the flip side, Uruguay and Costa Rica have been praised for their unity. In other words, political leadership can derail even the best network readiness: as Professor Deisy Ventura of the University of Sao Paulo noted, “If there’s one thing I have learned from the pandemic, it’s the importance of politics – for good and bad”.

However, the pandemic has created opportunities for policy learning and excellence. Last year, Uruguay was ranked 101st due to poor ICT regulation. But in April, Uruguay’s data-driven response was enabled by its newfound dedication to personal data protection, enshrined in a new Telemedicine Law. The pandemic has highlighted critical policy deficiencies in regional ICT sectors, and exposed potentially lethal gaps in meaningful connectivity. Efforts led by the Inter-American Development Bank[3] and the World Bank are drawing valuable lessons from Latin America’s diverse experiences with the pandemic, with a particular focus on leveraging digital innovation solutions for public health emergencies.

This blog intends to start a data-based conversation to support a more comprehensive understanding of Latin America facts and figures to support better intervention in times of crisis or times of calm. Portulans staff is hard at work preparing the 2020 Network Readiness Index, and we will keep investigating the elements that support countries grow and prosper.

 

 

[1] See the World Bank’s report on The Economy in the Time of Covid-19 (April 2020).

[2] See The Guardian’s article: Brazil condemned to historic tragedy by Bolsonaro’s virus response.

[3] See the IADB’s Policies to Fight the Pandemic (2020) and Detect, Prevent, Respond and Recover Digitally (2020) reports.