Region must harmonise measures, digitise processes to re-orient Services in COVID-19 environment

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Region's tourism sector hard

Collaboration, harmonisation and digitisation are critical if the Services Sector of the Region is to overcome the impacts of COVID-19 and return to sustainability.

From health, tourism and shipping to telecommunications, information and communications technology (ICT) and finance, Services stakeholders shared their views on what was needed for re-starting and sustaining the sector.

The stakeholders gathered for about three hours on 11 August via video conference to chart the way forward for the sector, which is the largest in the Region, in terms of investment, employment, output and trade. It accounts for more than 70% of GDP and 75% of total employment in the Region. Prior to the pandemic, the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) was finalising a Regional Strategic Plan and Implementation Plan for the Services sector based on the Community Resilience Model. Following the stakeholder meeting Tuesday, the Plan is to be further refined to include a strategy for pandemics, particularly the COVID-19.

Participants at the Meeting were provided with detailed analyses of the performance of the Region’s services sector, the performance of each Member State and each sub-sector at the regional and national levels for the period 2012 to 2018, followed by output estimates for the period 2019 and 2020. Mr. Timothy Odle, Deputy Programme Manager, Services Sector Development, CARICOM Secretariat, stressed the need for a balance between health and economic livelihood during the pandemic. He opined that while services output and employment were expected to fall sharply in 2020 when compared with 2019 and 2018, every effort should be made to realise some form of growth during the fourth quarter of 2020. He provided suggested targets for each Member State and for each sub-sector.

Harmonised systems and processes

The need for cooperation, harmonised systems and processes and digitisation were cross-cutting themes of the presentations. Participants said that advantage should be taken now to re-orient the sector to take account of the changing dynamics the pandemic has caused.

Co-Chair of the Meeting, His Excellency Dr. Clarence Henry, Antigua and Barbuda ’s Ambassador to CARICOM, agreed that there were now new opportunities for the services sector, especially against the background of the “extraordinary impact” of the pandemic on life in general, all economic sectors, health care, and the social sector. He called for a “big picture, futuristic” consideration of the Sector.

Digital transformation

Assistant Secretary-General Trade and Economic Integration, Mr. Joseph Cox, said that the pandemic provided a great opportunity to relook business models to recognise that there was a new normal. He alluded to demographic profiles in the context of service delivery; the starkness of competitiveness; the necessity for agility and responsiveness to markets; and a new data mining strategy. Mr. Cox pointed out that ICT was now a principal driver across all sectors and that digital transformation was now paramount. He added that digitisation could not be transitory, but had to be part of the Region’s “make-up and part of our future” involving all sectors.

The critical positioning of ICT and the uptake of telecommunications, were positive takeaways from the pandemic, according to the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU). CTU’s Telecommunications Strategist, Mr. Selby Wilson, said the current scenario emphasised “more closely and pointedly” the need to accelerate the implementation of the CARICOM Single ICT space. He stressed that the Community needed to use this period as a catalyst to drive the Single ICT Space into service more effectively and quickly to provide those services to the Caribbean people. There were a lot of things that could be done and had to be done, he told participants.

Dr. Lisa Indar, Assistant Director and Head, Tourism and Health Programme Surveillance, Disease Prevention & Control Division of the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) told participants that management of CARICOM economies now was critical. In a comprehensive presentation, the CARICOM Institution provided a medical background and protocols to fight the virus in the context of the services sector, and called for a repurposing and adaptation to ensure those rules were observed.

The Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) painted a bleak picture of the tourism sector, and raised matters such as the willingness of people to travel, particularly when quarantining. Through its Director, Membership Services, Ms. Faye Gill, the Organisation recommended standardised entry protocols across member states and the development of a high value domestic tourism programme for the Region. The organisation is also promoting intra-regional leisure travel, engaging repeat visitors, developing comprehensive long-stay/working visitor programmes. Against the background of the US being the primary source of visitors to the Region, the Organisation is also recommending, as a long-term perspective, diversifying source markets.

The outlook was not much different for the cruise sub-sector which, prior to the pandemic, was enjoying one of its best seasons. The cruise industry, which employs about 15 000 persons ranging from tour operators, restaurateurs and shipping agents, to taxi drivers and port security is severely impacted. The real impact would be felt from the last quarter of 2020, shipping executive Caribbean Shipping Association (CSA) representative Mr. Nathan Dundas said. Digitisation of processes and systems in the shipping industry and data capturing were critical the Managing Director of Brysson Shipping told the meeting, and harmonisation of protocols was imperative to prevent confusion from cruise lines and passengers. He added that there should be specific guidelines for each of the various operations in the industry. The safety and protection of people should be the primary factor going forward, he added, as he pointed out that there was need for a reconsideration of working arrangements for staffers in the industry.

The state of the Region’s workforce and new formats of working, and improving productivity were major concerns for the Caribbean Employers Confederation (CEC) whose President, Mr. Wayne Chen attended the Meeting. While the pandemic forced ad hoc remote work, he posited that it should become a permanent, expanded part of the Caribbean job landscape. Ensuring that such work is measurable, efficient and supported by labour laws, will have to be factored in, he added. He called for upscaling the workforce and making education and training more relevant to the digital transformation that was occurring.

The Caribbean Association of Bankers (CAB) pointed to the challenges affecting the sector, including external shocks and negative categorisations of Member States. The focus now should be on digitisation and cyber security, training of staff, the effects of the pandemic on credit, and ramping up economic activity, Ms. Wendy Delmar, CAB’s Chief Executive Officer advised.

CARICOM’s Energy Programme Manager, Dr. Devon Gardner, provided a sit-rep of the changes – including uses and patterns – in the Region’s energy sector due to the pandemic, and the implications for energy management. He told participants that the Region now had to look at new measures to plan for supply disruptions and how to deal with transmission and delivery of electricity. He said it had become necessary to shift from the traditional electricity centralised system to a more demand driven one to cater to flexibility. Electric mobility was another area that Dr. Gardner said was necessary to counter, for example, the closure of gas stations in keeping with protocols to fight the spread of the disease. These measures would require innovative means of financing, he pointed out.

Ms. Barbara Williams,  Deputy National Authorising Officer (NAO) and Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) Implementation Coordinator of Antigua and Barbuda, co-chaired the Meeting. In the CARICOM Quasi Cabinet, Antigua and Barbuda holds responsibility for the Services Sector.

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