Fighting Coronavirus with Digitization in Central America

Learn more about Matthew Rooney.
Matthew Rooney

The Central American countries, desperate to shield their underfunded public health systems from a tsunami of COVID-19 patients, have taken draconian measures. From the Bush Institute's point of view, the dramatic impacts from these measures strengthens the case for digitization in the region.

Almost a year ago, The Bush Institute and the Institute’s Central America Prosperity Project, a group of Central American thought leaders, called on the governments, private sectors, and civil societies of the so-called Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – to develop and implement national and regional digitization strategies to promote the region’s competitiveness and fight corruption. Since that time, we have been working with our network to identify the key impediments in law, regulation, and practice to broader use of mobile digital technologies. 

As the coronavirus crisis has developed, however, we have all heard the rising chorus of voices around the world calling for an end to international trade, investment, and immigration. Without going that far, there are those in Central America, including within our CAPP network, who wonder if focusing on digitization is a distraction from the region’s more urgent priorities. 

Obviously, under the current circumstances our friends in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have numerous priorities more urgent than making broadband Wi-Fi more widely available. The Central American countries, desperate to shield their underfunded public health systems from a tsunami of COVID-19 patients, have been taking draconian measures. They are shuttering all stores, quarantining all inbound travelers, closing their borders. Members of our CAPP group are caught up in these measures, and quarantine shelters without bedding or meals, stores stripped bare of canned goods in addition to fresh foods and paper goods, curfews enforced by armed soldiers, simple government services shutting down.

From our point of view, these dramatic and wrenching impacts of the virus strengthen the case for digitization in at least two ways: 

First, looking backward. Had these economies been more fully digitized before the current crisis, they would have been more prosperous. Digitization opens opportunities for small business to engage in commerce beyond their immediate community, including on international markets. It opens opportunities for enterprising young people to develop and market apps, and to work remotely for app and game developers around the world. It makes banking services, including loans and credit cards, more accessible to more people, and less expensive.

By the same token, digitization strengthens social solidarity and trust. It shields tax collection from corruption and helps ensure everyone pays their taxes – which, not incidentally, reduces the need for foreign assistance from the U.S. It makes the government’s budget, including contracting and procurement, more transparent and helps reassure citizens that their taxes are being spent appropriately. 

The second way this crisis strengthens the case for digitization is forward-looking. A more robustly digitized economy is more resilient. Many workers, especially in key service industries, and government officials can work remotely, ensuring continuity of operations without contributing to contagion.  A digitized system has fewer moving parts and is therefore easier to restart after a shutdown. 

If these countries had been more robustly digitized before this crisis, they would have had the wealth to provide reasonable accommodations in quarantine, to fund government operations and health care adequately, and to ensure that their economies didn’t crash. They would be able to bounce back from the crisis more smoothly and more rapidly. 

For all of these reasons, the Bush Institute and our CAPP partners remain convinced that promoting digitization of the Central American economies is an important contribution, not just to their long-term prosperity, but to their shorter-term ability to manage and overcome the current crisis. In fact, the Honduran government just in the past week has passed legislation designed to accelerate implementation of the country’s National Broadband Plan – prompted in part by our Honduran CAPP partners. 

With this in mind, we are in the final stages of developing a regional digital strategy that we will propose to the region in the coming weeks. We look forward to working together in the following months to build the coalitions of support needed to implement this strategy. 

Our vision of a peaceful and prosperous Central America, at once a solid neighbor and partner for the United States and a place where Central Americans can live and thrive, remains our lodestar. We believe that it remains within reach, despite the coronavirus crisis, and remain committed to working with our partners to see it realized.