COVID-19 and e-commerce: impact on businesses and policy responses

Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, UNCTAD has played a critical role in raising awareness on the opportunities emerging from the crisis through increasing the uptake of e-commerce and digital solutions. At the same time, UNCTAD has voiced concerns about the risk of rising digital inequalities, particularly in least developed countries (LDCs).

This study is based on the results of a survey that investigates the impact of COVID-19 on e-commerce businesses from early March to end of July 2020. It focuses on 23 countries, mainly LDCs, in Africa and Asia-Pacific. Most of the respondents to the survey presented in this study are based in countries that have benefitted from an eTrade Readiness Assessment. Some others have been involved in the eTrade for Women initiative or sought UNCTAD assistance in developing an e-commerce strategy.

257 representatives of e-commerce businesses, out of 699 invited, responded to the survey and shared their experience following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses have been divided into two groups: companies selling at least parts of their goods or services online and third-party online marketplaces. The responses from the private sector were complemented by public sector responses from 12 countries, elaborating on measures taken during the COVID-19 crisis to support e-commerce as well as to use e-commerce for economic recovery efforts.

This study highlights how successful initiatives at the country level, building on public-private cooperation, have been crucial in responding well to the COVID-19 crisis and limiting its adverse impacts. It showcases the policy measures that the private sector has found the most impactful to empower COVID-19 recovery strategies.

At the same time, it sheds new light on how the pandemic has reinforced pre-existing bottlenecks in the ecommerce ecosystems. To conclude, this study reiterates the importance of mobilizing more international support and national commitment towards reforms, as well as investments, in key policy areas to enhance developing countries' digital readiness for e-commerce.