It is a truism that the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most dramatic and unprecedented social crises confronting the Caribbean society in recent memory. The pandemic is a world-changing event. Throughout the world, the rhythms of people’s everyday lifestyles have been radically transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.
We are facing a dramatic and unprecedented new reality. It appears that COVID-19 has the potential to restructure our livelihood systems and lifestyles for good. Perhaps, at least for now, the new normal is that some people may continue working remotely from home due to the nature of their jobs.
Apart from essential workers, most workers are locked down in their homes. The normal face-to-face social interaction has been disrupted by COVID-19, giving way to social distancing—which we should not allow to become social isolation.
The coronavirus does not discriminate in terms of infection. Even though it infects people irrespective of their race, gender, age, or educational attainment, its socio-economic effects currently appear to be uneven. People working in certain sectors of the economy are harder hit than others.
In the Caribbean, informal workers who constitute a large share of the workforce have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic. Certain jobs can be done remotely, while for others, the feasibility of working from home is very low. For example, currently, the following jobs are much less likely to be done from home: food preparation and serving-related jobs, personal care and service jobs, agriculture, forestry and fishing jobs, construction and extraction jobs, healthcare practitioners and healthcare support occupations.
On the other hand, jobs or occupations that are more likely to be done from home are: computer and mathematical occupations, education, training services, business and financial operations, insurance jobs, legal jobs, etcetera.
Unfortunately, most of the jobs that fall in the category of very low feasibility in relation to working from home are low wage, with least social protection but high risk. They require a high degree of close physical contact with the public. These are the much-needed frontline jobs in the era of the coronavirus pandemic.
Currently, most Caribbean countries are experiencing disruptions in normal social interactions and supply chains due to COVID-19. This raises pertinent questions: how can we prepare for any future pandemic? Should part of the preparation be focused on automation in order to immunize the social and economic system against any future pandemics of the current scale?
Well, credible estimates by McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) provide data on variations in automation by sector for some developed and developing countries.
The data for a Small Island and Developing State like Barbados is revealing. For the retail trade sector, 51 per cent of work has the potential to be automated, representing 10.6 thousand employees.
With respect to the accommodation and food services sector, 66 per cent of work has the potential to be automated, which makes up 10.3 thousand employees.
In the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector, MGI estimates indicate that 47 per cent of work has the potential to be automated, representing 4.3 thousand employees.
In the construction sector, 44 per cent of work has the potential to be automated, which makes up 5.5 thousand employees.
In the finance and insurance sector, 46 per cent of work has the potential to be automated, accounting for 3.2 thousand employees.
Further to that, in the educational services sector (including private, state and local government schools), 26 per cent of work has the potential to be automated, which is equivalent to 1.9 thousand employees.
For healthcare and social assistance (including private, state, and local government facilities), 39 per cent of work has the potential to be automated, making up about 2.9 thousand employees.
Last but not the least, the MGI estimates also show that in terms of administrative support and government, 40 per cent of the work has the potential to be automated, making up 8.3 thousand employees.
According to the International Labor Organization’s report in April 2020, about 14 million jobs were lost in the Caribbean and Latin America due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same vein, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in April 2020 noted a projected GDP growth rate of -2.5 per cent for the Caribbean in 2020.
The above estimates and actual data suggest the need to cautiously look at sectors of the economy that can be automated and policies should be formulated accordingly to profoundly reduce any deleterious impact of future pandemics.
In observing social distancing measures, work in high-touch and direct customer interaction sectors such as fast-food restaurants and retail etcetera, are currently being disrupted. Such high-risk but essential jobs, especially in the era of COVID-19, have a good potential of being automated.
The emerging reality is to adopt innovative technologies such as robots and artificial intelligence that will protect essential services and industries against any pandemic. Doing so will ensure an orderly functioning system. In that context, countries need to educate and train their workforces with the requisite skills.
Policy makers need to ensure that citizens have the right skills necessary for a globalized world that will increasingly continue to be digitized. The possession of digital skills may enable the economy to flourish while at the same time increase wage returns on those skills. Citizens should be encouraged to acquire skills for a digital world coupled with information and communication technology soft skills.
It is worthy of note that job automation (adopting technological advances such as robots and artificial intelligence) may pose a threat to the continued existence of some jobs—the displacement of some job categories. In such a situation, those affected should be helped to quickly adapt through re-skilling and up-skilling. They can be incentivized to participate in other sectors of the economy. In that context, job losses in one sector may be offset by the job gains in another.
Adopting emerging technologies in an increasingly globalized and digital world will be more of a blessing than a bane in the Caribbean. Let’s prepare for that future of work to enhance our chances of effectively participating and benefiting from a post COVID-19 world.
Emmanuel Adugu, Ph.D. is a Lecturer, Department of Government, Sociology, Social Work & Psychology.