Are Countries Ready to Exit COVID-19 Lockdowns?

How prepared are countries around the world to work in a socially distant mode and lift lockdown orders during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Socially distant modes of working have become the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic

What social distancing looks like, however, varies wildly in countries across the globe.

Countries have taken vastly different measures to stop the spread of the virus. Some, such as India, mandated complete lockdowns. Others, such as Singapore, have been more measured in turning off face-to-face working and only declared a lockdown recently. And some, such as Brazil, have even dismissed the need to do so. Many countries, such as Germany, Denmark, New Zealand, among others, are planning a cautious re-opening and in the United States, President Trump has given each state the license to set its own easing calendar.

As such, the world effectively has launched a sweeping series of experiments, testing not only how to flatten the curve of the pandemic’s spread, but also how possible it is for their economies to survive when they move whatever is possible online. In other words, we are living through the purest test imaginable of the internet — and are quickly discovering how able it is to recreate a facsimile of the economy-as-usual. This dependence on the online facsimile will be the state of affairs for a significant period even as countries gently lift their lockdowns in phases.

While only part of any economy’s work can be done remotely, the success of moving large swaths of work into “socially distant mode” depends on multiple digital services: telecommunications platforms and apps, such as Zoom and Skype, to keep workers connected; e-commerce to get provisions to remote workers as retail establishments are shuttered or curtailed; and digital media — especially those that can withstand a drop in advertising revenues — to keep people informed and make good business decisions. On top of that, countries need digital payment options capable of handling the surges in transactions.

All of these, in turn, are dependent on internet infrastructure and how able it is to keep up with the spikes in digital traffic, especially with the simultaneous use of high-bandwidth applications. To reduce the costs a country must incur by putting the face-to-face economy on pause, policymakers and technology companies must understand where services are falling short and best practices and benchmarks to make near-term improvements and plan investments for the longer-term, beyond the immediate crisis.

At Tufts University’s Fletcher School, in a research project funded by the Mastercard Impact Fund and administered by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, we examined this question by evaluating 42 countries that are significant in the global economy and have enacted social distancing measures. Some countries that were missing key data were not included. We scored the “social distance readiness” of their economies using three indices developed with our team, which included researchers, Griffin Brewer and Christina Filipovic:

  • Robustness of key platforms — technology-mediated remote work, e-commerce, digital media and the country’s digital foundations — key to business continuity
  • Proliferation and resilience of digital payments options to facilitate transactions
  • Resilience of the internet infrastructure to traffic surges

Using data to create an apples-to-apples comparison across countries like this creates a simplified picture, but one that we think is useful. The results (higher scores represent better performance along each index) are graphed below.

Scanning the map reveals several patterns and corresponding implications

There is a divide between rich and poor, but also between the resilient and the fragile

Advanced economies, at the top of the graph have more robust digital platforms, making them better prepared for the pivot to online work than developing economies in the bottom. They also have stronger digital payments infrastructure. However, there are wide variations in internet resilience, meaning the infrastructure may struggle to support the increased demand. Countries on the left of the graph will experience jittery connections and slowdowns relative to “normal” performance, which could hurt productivity.

Social distance readiness is not matched by actual socially distant working

At one end of the spectrum, Singapore and the Netherlands have emerged as standard-setters. Ironically, their path to social distancing has been more measured, despite being the best prepared. At the time of writing, the Netherlands government advises, “Leave the house only to go to work if you cannot work at home”. It had also experimented with a less aggressive approach to social distancing relative to its European neighbors, ostensibly to improve “herd immunity”. Singapore had not gone into a total lockdown and recently implemented it; only 40% of workers in the central business district worked from home at the end of March, a number likely to go up as penalties are being imposed for not allowing employees from doing so. This is in contrast to India, at the other end of the spectrum. The country has implemented a complete lockdown covering 1.3 billion people and is among the least prepared across all three indices, among the 42 countries studied. With 0.8 physicians per thousand people in 2017, it is also among the least prepared to handle the rates of infection and mortality experienced in countries among the hardest hit by COVID -19.

The U.S. is ready but not ready enough

The US joins the group of advanced economies with a superior level of robustness of key digital platforms for business continuity and strong digital money proliferation. It has taken its time to institute social distancing guidelines, and businesses, particularly, those that deal in information are steadily asking employees to work from home. This will, no doubt, create stresses on the Internet infrastructure. As digital traffic surges, the US will feel the need to develop the levels of resilience of the very top performers, such as Singapore, the Netherlands, Canada and Germany. Internet traffic was up 18% on March 22 since the beginning of the year. In Seattle, it was even higher: up 25% since the beginning of the year. At the time of writing, across the US download speeds have held up well, but its experience varies. Mean download speeds over fixed broadband declined only slightly in the US, during the week of March 23 compared to the previous week, while it fell over mobile connections. The aggregate measures, however, hide a different reality — of extreme unevenness across the country. Recall, that the Internet is designed as a hierarchy of tiers – from the Tier 1 providers constituting the backbone to the last mile connections that get the data in and out of people’s homes. While surging traffic can be re-routed by the Tier 1 carriers or by content delivery services used by video carriers, such as Netflix and Google, to avoid congestion, there is no getting around the congestion in the last mile. The experience in that last mile can vary widely across the US. In addition to getting the providers to pledge to keep Americans connected, regulators and policymakers to improve access speeds in the last mile more evenly across the country and addressing a key issue: broadband access is among the most expensive anywhere in the world, due to insufficient competition. Only 19% of rural Americans have an alternative to their current broadband provider and competition in broadband at faster speeds is virtually non-existent. Several actions can be taken, following on FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s recommendations, including: using the FCC’s universal service powers to provide hotspots for loan to students to connecting hospitals and patients lifting or easing data caps and overage fees are in place, and allowing more users to remain connected. Over the longer-term, the US Internet infrastructure needs to be upgraded to increase speeds overall.

The EU is not ready

Much of Europe, with some exceptions, suffers from middling robustness of the platforms and weak resilience of the Internet infrastructure. Speeds in much of Europe are much lower than in the US overall and the infrastructure is older. This means that high bandwidth using services that are less critical to economic productivity have to act urgently to reduce their traffic, as Netflix and YouTube already have committed to do so. This urgency is even greater in the southern EU nations; a particularly difficult case is that of Italy. As the graph shows, it is both less resilient and its platforms aren’t sufficiently robust, performing among the poorest of the European nations we studied. Alarmingly, Italy is also one of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19 and operates under an extended lockdown. Among the northern EU nations, Sweden, may be the best positioned to do socially distant work in terms of robustness of the key digital platforms and use of digital money. While Sweden’s Achilles heel is a much lower capacity of its Internet infrastructure to handles surges relative to, say, its neighbor, Norway, it has taken a less aggressive approach to social distancing, so it may not have run into any constraints as yet. Over time, this might change as Sweden’s approach has come at a high public health cost, compared with that of Norway’s.

Some Asian countries are ready and have used that readiness aggressively

Being proximate to the origins of the outbreak and with aggressive use of digital technologies, some Asian countries have taken a markedly different approach to the rest of the world. South Korea presents an interesting benchmark. Its Internet resilience is among the best in the world as is its use of digital payments and its platforms are robust even it doesn’t rank among the very highest. However, the country pioneered a location tracking app to gauge social distancing compliance and keeping people away from infected areas. In China, the starting point of the outbreak, readiness for socially distant work is much better than in most developing countries but it is not as robust or resilient as those in the north. However, once it started aggressively locking down key affected regions, China became a hotspot for the use of a cluster of digital technologies, including AI, location tracking, facial recognition, drones, etc. to contain the spread of the outbreak and enforce social distance compliance. Apps such as Alipay Health Code are used to issue Chinese citizens color-coded QR codes that indicate risk level and dictate who must be isolated. Singapore, too has deployed similar risk level determination technologies. While these approaches can raise concerns about privacy and the use of digital technology for surveillance, they have proven to be effective in South Korea and Singapore and, eventually, in China. A privacy respecting adaptation of the Asian approaches to aggressive readiness is – and urgently ought to be — worked on in the US and other countries to emulate similar successes at containment.

The developing world is ill-prepared

Unsurprisingly, developing world countries are the most vulnerable as measured by all three indices. That said, countries have taken somewhat paradoxical positions. There is a marked difference between the resilience of, say, India and Indonesia and, say, Mexico and Brazil. The latter pair demonstrate far greater resilience to traffic surges. Ironically, the government in both Mexico and Brazil have brushed aside the need for aggressive social distancing, while India is under lockdown and Indonesia has declared an emergency and is considering a lockdown. These positions are inconsistent and ought to be reconsidered keeping pre-emptive containment of COVID-19 as the primary concern. In conclusion, this analysis gives policymakers a sense of where their socially distant work policies are at odds with the readiness of their digital systems and what they need to do to reduce the economic costs even while acting to contain COVID-19. But they must also look beyond the current crisis. When Napoleon III rebuilt Paris in the 19th century in the aftermath of the cholera epidemic, the epidemic itself was critical in re-imagining the new city. Paris’ wide open boulevards, designed to let in sunlight as a disinfectant, inspire us to this day. It is time we starting thinking about the rebuilding that countries around the world must do on many foundational systems after the pandemic passes. An essential part of that should involve the digital systems — the platforms, the Internet infrastructure and digital payments – these are the lifelines during the period of socially distant work. What will be the Parisian boulevards we shall build beyond this pandemic? It is time we started learning from the current readiness gaps and planning for that even as we urgently race to corral the pandemic itself.

Video Summary

Watch the video summary for key insights from the Social Distance Readiness benchmark. 

Methodology and Data Sources

Digital Planet’s new analysis on Digital Readiness during COVID-19 offers quantitative insight to answer the question: which countries are the most prepared to keep the wheels of their digital economies turning during the COVID-19 crisis?

Our analysis maps 42 countries across two main axes: (1) Robustness of digital platforms key to business continuity and (2) Resilience of Internet infrastructure to traffic surges. We also examine the (3) Proliferation of digital payment options and (4) The percentage of workforce able to telecommute.

Index compilation methodology for scores follows the guidelines laid out by the OECD in their gold-standard Handbook on Constructing Composite Indicators. Weights for the indicators, clusters, and component hierarchy were assigned according to expert input under a budget allocation process (BAP). A full breakdown of indicator inputs, data sources, and weights can be found here.

Robustness of digital platforms key to business continuity

Scoring on the robustness of digital platforms key to business continuity was calculated by compiling the three central platform sub-indices from Digital Planet’s Ease of Doing Digital Business (EDDB) 2019 report[1]— Digital Media, E-Commerce, and Online Freelance (re-titled “Remote Work”)— edited slightly to better reflect the particular circumstances of the digital economy during a pandemic while retaining their core composition and interpretation. Sources for individual indicators include the World Bank, OECD, ILO, and Euromonitor. Further reading, including a full methodology and list of data sources, on the EDDB platform scores can be found in the methodology section of the EDDB report.

Resilience of Internet infrastructure to traffic surges

Internet resilience scores were calculated using OpenSignal’s 2019 data on internet bandwidth speeds[2]. An economy’s “peak traffic” internet speed was divided by its average bandwidth speed. This calculation methodology follows the assumption that economies where “peak traffic” speeds are closer to average speeds have a more robust and reliable internet infrastructure under load. Resilience scores for Estonia, China, and Belgium were estimated by taking the average of characteristically similar countries and cross-referencing against independent data.

Proliferation of digital payment options

Digital payments proliferation was compiled using indicators from the World Bank Global Findex and Euromonitor and concerns two central themes: digital payment infrastructure and usage.

The percentage of workforce able to telecommute

Estimates on the percent of the workforce able to telecommute by country are approximations derived from ILO occupational statistics. The population employed in ISCO-08 labor classification groups 1-4 (Managers, Professionals, Technicians and Associate Professionals, and Clerical Support Workers) are assumed to have a higher ability to work from home during a pandemic.

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Note: This research was originally published in Harvard Business Review.  This research is a work in progress and was made possible by the financial support from the Mastercard Impact Fund, which is administered by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. The underlying analysis, the methodology, the interpretations, and insights belong solely to the Institute for Business in the Global Context at The Fletcher School at Tufts University and do not in any way represent the views or positions of Mastercard and its affiliates.