The contribution of science, technology and innovation at this time of crisis linked to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is key for facing current health challenges, but also for supporting production efforts aimed at economic recovery after the pandemic, according to ministers, deputy ministers and senior authorities from ministries and governing bodies in these areas from numerous governments in the region, speaking at a virtual meeting held with Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
The informational meeting for the member countries of the Conference on Science, Innovation and Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) – a subsidiary body of ECLAC – drew the participation of officials from 15 countries in the region: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. It was led by Alicia Bárcena, along with Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, Assistant Director-General for Exact and Natural Sciences at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Luis Adrián Salazar Solís, the Minister of Science, Technology and Telecommunications of Costa Rica, in its capacity as Chair of the Conference on Science, Innovation and Information and Communications Technologies.
During the event, ECLAC’s Executive Secretary presented an overview of the current scientific and technological system in Latin America and the Caribbean and its main challenges. She noted that digital infrastructure lags particularly far behind compared to other regions and, for that reason, the development and adoption of digital solutions must contemplate countries’ structural elements and enabling factors. “Regional integration must be strengthened, along with capacities in the health industry, and the digital economy,” she stated.
“The pandemic has revealed the need for an approach that goes beyond national borders and strengthens regional integration based on Science and Technology systems that are linked among countries and among their production systems. Humankind is racing to find a vaccine and treatments that would allow for neutralizing the health impacts of the pandemic, and that is where joint and coordinated efforts become essential,” Alicia Bárcena asserted.
She added that the contribution of science, technology and innovation at this time of pandemic, and of the policies and institutions that promote them, is not limited to prevention or treatment of the disease. “We have to bring science, technology and innovation closer to productive sectors,” she indicated, such as in the case of manufacturing medical supplies, diverse products for health protection, tests to detect the virus, and critical medical equipment such as mechanical ventilators, among other items.
She also explained that the pandemic has forced us to adopt new ways of working, educating and relating to one another. The technological and social challenges involved in offering the possibility of working remotely (telecommuting) to the maximum number of people, and in providing opportunities for distance learning so that children and adolescents can continue their studies, have been significant and must be taken into account at this time, she said.
“We know that, in this crisis, the contribution of science, technology and innovation is immediate. Therefore, in these times of pandemic, we have to think about how we can address the current situation and the post COVID-19 one as well. In that sense, the relationship between science, technology and national production systems is going to be critical. Above all because there are going to be very significant changes in international trade and the supply chain in key sectors will be severed or weakened and, therefore, it will be necessary, at a local and regional level, to develop a new way of producing goods and services more locally,” Alicia Bárcena indicated.
In her presentation, ECLAC’s highest authority explained that the contribution of science, technology and innovation in the face of the COVID-19 crisis can be seen in several areas: first, in research and development to understand the disease and its effects on the population, as well as for vaccines and medication; second, in the management of critical supplies and equipment, such as diagnostic tests, mechanical ventilators and the development of applications for tracking and prevention; and third, in the economic recovery, with the development of digital platforms for health, education and work at a distance, and technological transfer and industrial reconversion.
However, low investment in research and development (R&D), which amounts to 0.7% of regional GDP on average, and the low percentage of researchers dedicated to R&D (3%) cries out for urgent strategic management, Alicia Bárcena stressed. She also underscored that the development and adoption of digital solutions are conditioned by structural factors in the region’s countries. For example, with regard to telecommuting, on average just 26.6% of formally employed persons in the region can do their jobs from home, with a significant variation between countries. In addition, teleworking has a differentiated impact on women due to the unfair sexual division of labor and their excessive unpaid workload, involving care work and domestic tasks.
Meanwhile, with regard to online learning, she explained that there are still significant connectivity problems – lack of access to computers and an Internet connection – that hamper distance learning in the region. In countries with lower levels of connectivity, less than 20% of students live in a home with an Internet connection, Bárcena indicated. In addition, the high incidence of overcrowding, especially in the lowest-income quintiles, affects the quality of distance learning, she warned.
According to data from ECLAC’s Regional Broadband Observatory, there is great inequality in digital connectivity in the region. Economic status, age and geographical location limit access to connectivity, and there are significant gaps in access between the highest and lowest-income households. Thus, access to digital platforms – for example, for telecommuting– is not affordable for the entire population.
“In this urgent context, ECLAC’s Conference on Science, Innovation and ICTs appears as a space for collaboration and joint construction of regional initiatives and capacities; and, at the same time, for publicizing the efforts and policies that the region’s countries are undertaking to create outlets for coordination and cooperation among the region’s countries. I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to thank the leadership of the government of Costa Rica, in its role as Chair of the Conference, along with the countries that make up this Conference’s Executive Committee,” Bárcena stated.
ECLAC’s Executive Secretary also informed the meeting’s participants that the Commission is conducting specialized studies and reports on analysis of digital technology use in times of COVID-19, while also working on a position document regarding the digital panorama in the region. Furthermore, it is organizing a high-level, technical dialogue with countries regarding the use of digital technologies amid the pandemic.
“The post COVID-19 world demands more regional integration from us. We must think about the region’s future in the new economic geography in order to depend less on imported manufactured goods and imagine regional value chains. Industrial and technological policies are needed that will allow the region to strengthen its production capacities and generate new strategic sectors,” the senior United Nations official stressed.
“To have an impact in the new global economy, the region must move towards greater innovation and productive, trade and technological integration. An integrated market of 650 million inhabitants would constitute an important insurance policy against shocks produced outside the region,” added Alicia Bárcena. She also recalled that ECLAC is working on a proposal for a new universal social protection scheme with a basic income for citizens, as well as on inclusive and sustainable international governance based on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
“What we seek is to put science and technology at the service of people, to open a new space for development with new sectors, services and products, development related to production and technology. I want to emphasize that now is the time for the region to make a very important step forward and to advance together with greater cooperation. ECLAC is committed to this and puts itself at the disposal of countries to carry out all the initiatives that you have set out to do,” the organization’s Executive Secretary said at the conclusion of the meeting.