Researchers at the Lusaka-based COMESA Secretariat have recommended that governments in the regional bloc consider improving digital infrastructural foundations to improve internet so as to boost service delivery to citizens during the Covid-19 crisis.
COMESA, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern America is an economic bloc that brings together 19 countries that include Rwanda.
Improving digital infrastructural foundations to improve internet, Jane Kibiru, Research Fellow at the COMESA Secretariat explained, "is about bridging the digital divide between the urban and rural population."
She told The New Times that: "This can be done through investment in high quality and affordable communication infrastructure and services as the demand for reliable and fast connections are expected to rise with the new digital way of working and living."
Benedict Musengele, Senior Research Fellow at the COMESA Secretariat said in an interview that "it is very critical during this Covid-19 period as well as for the post-pandemic recovery period."
"Currently, areas without internet are marginalised and cannot receive or supply essential services because internet has become a key medium for transactions during this pandemic period," he said.
Governments, he explained, need to increase their budget allocations to internet infrastructure, ensure there is internet penetration in all parts of their countries, introduce computer classes in all primary schools, promote use of internet in transactions, embrace e-commerce and lower the cost of internet usage.
"Remember, with internet penetration in all parts of the country even teaching can be done through internet as well as provision of health services; what we are calling telemedicine."
"Classes and meetings can be conducted through zoom, Microsoft teams and webinar, among other platforms. The same with ordering essential products from respective suppliers which can be delivered through drones."
Regional governments are also urged to consider the inclusion of internet service workers within 'essential services' not subject to work from home restrictions to avoid disruptions over the period of Covid-19.
In addition, Musengele recommends, member states should: provide support to businesses in the service sectors since they are likely to be most affected by the pandemic; and enhance investments in internet infrastructure and penetration to promote online supply of services.
Besides reducing the cost of internet usage, Musengele also noted that the "same should be done to charges under mobile and internet banking as well as mobile money transfers which will have positive trickle-down effects to the citizens and the economy as a whole."
This is because, he said, majority of the citizens will embrace it as opposed to the physical transacting mode which is not feasible or is being discouraged during this pandemic period.
Most of COMESA countries have put in place measures; including stimulus packages, tax holidays, and relaxing liquidity requirements for commercial banks, to minimize the effects of Covid-19 as well as support to post-crisis recovery.
Countries also adopted guidelines on movement of goods and services during the pandemic.