How the digital transformation can build a more inclusive post-COVID world

27 July 2020

​Written by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General

It is increasingly clear that the systemic shock caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has accelerated the already rapid pace of digital transformation.

Digital technologies have allowed many of our economies to avoid a complete standstill in recent months, as billions of people have been asked to work or study from home. Not surprisingly, some countries have seen up to a 60% increase in Internet traffic since the start of the crisis.

Many governments have turned to digital tools to help fight COVID-19. While apps and biometrics are important to help track and trace the spread of the virus, they also raise new questions around data protection and privacy.

Goverments must take steps to ensure that privacy protections are designed in these systems by default, and that personal data is only retained for as long as necessary to fulfil the purpose for which they are collected.

[Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary General]

At the same time, malicious actors have been taking advantage of the epidemic. Coronavirus-related scams and phishing campaigns have targeted individuals, businesses and even hospitals.

Deliberate false and misleading information has quickly and widely spread over the Internet and led to what is being called an “infodemic”. The harmful effects of disinformation and misinformation about COVID-19 cannot be overstated and go well beyond health concerns.cannot be overstated and go well beyond health concerns.

Perhaps even more profoundly, the crisis runs the risk of exacerbating the vulnerabilities and inequalities already persistent in our societies – the very inequities that the SDGs are seeking to redress.

In the same way that not every job can be performed remotely, not every individual or business is equipped with the means or the skills to use digital tools. Digital divides persist because of geographical differences, gender, incomes and skills. In many parts of the world, access to electricity remains the first stumbling block.

To tackle these challenges, governments have a unique opportunity to work together with civil society, business, trade unions, the technical community, and other relevant stakeholders towards a digitally-enabled recovery that strengthens the inclusiveness and resilience of our economies, and that puts people’s well-being at the core.

There has never been a better moment to close the digital divide, to invest in infrastructure and skills, and to connect all of humanity so that everyone, regardless of gender, age or race, can benefit from the opportunities enabled by digital technologies.

We must also improve data access and sharing, both within and across borders, by addressing the profound issues of digital security, data protection and privacy, and ensure that artificial intelligence systems are designed in a way that respects the rule of law, human rights, democratic values and diversity, and includes appropriate safeguards to ensure a fair and just society as enshrined in the OECD Principles on AI.

We should also build on behavioural changes resulting from the crisis, such as increased teleworking, to harness the digital transformation as a driver of greater environmental sustainability.

Together we can help countries build a better world enabled by digital transformation, with greater inclusiveness, sustainability and the resilience that will be needed to weather future systemic shocks.

The United Nations Group on the Information Society (UNGIS) has initiated this Dialogue on the Role of Digitalization in the Decade of Action to raise awareness of both the importance of digitalization in achieving the SDGs and of the unique opportunity that UNGIS presents for more effective collaboration in this area within the UN System.
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