As pressure mounts on the government to fully open e-commerce during the lockdown, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has called on countries to fully adopt online platforms to facilitate trade.

This is especially important as countries embrace the lockdown as part of measures to restrict the movement of people to curb the spread of Covid-19.

The global trade body said Covid-19 has made it clear that e-commerce can be an important tool or solution for consumers and international trade in the face of the rapidly spreading disease.

In a new report, the WTO said e‑commerce can also support small businesses and, by making economies more competitive, be an economic driver for both domestic growth and international trade.

The SA government has controversially moved to place restrictions on e-commerce. This week, Business for SA (B4SA) an organisation made up of Business Unity SA and the Black Business Council, which was established to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, said it was strongly pushing for all e-commerce to be reopened.

Last week, trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel, who has clashed with various groups opposed to some of the lockdown regulations, said the government could not allow unfettered e-commerce as that would be unfair on other traders such as spaza shops, among other concerns. Under the level 4 lockdown regulations, Patel said e-commerce could be expanded incrementally. At present he has allowed the sale of essential food items, winter clothing, bedding, hot foods, stationery and cellphones.

However, logistics and e-commerce businesses are pushing for the government to fully open up home deliveries, saying such a move would actually aid the fight against the pandemic. Retailers have said lifting restrictions on products that can be sold online would encourage customers to stay at home while saving retail workers’ jobs.

On Monday, DA MP Dean Macpherson said he had written to portfolio committee chair for trade and industry Duma Nkosi to invite Patel to justify the e-commerce restrictions.

In its report, the WTO notes that in order to effectively implement the social distancing measures aimed at containing the spread of Covid-19, several governments around the world have encouraged online purchasing as an alternative to physical shopping, and consumers have adapted their shopping patterns and behaviours to minimise risks of getting infected.

In some developed countries, distribution service platforms have managed to address problems without government intervention. The WTO says in developing countries, some governments have been more proactive than others, and in particular in countries where face-to-face transactions had, until now, remained the norm.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has made it clear that e-commerce can be an important tool/solution for consumers in times of crisis, and that it is also an economic driver, including for small businesses,” the WTO said.

The WTO says that the global nature of Covid-19 and its effect on e-commerce may encourage strengthened international co-operation and the further development of policies for online purchases and supply.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital technologies in general, but also several vulnerabilities across the world, the WTO said.

It said the resulting experiences and lessons were relevant to various discussions in the organisation, including those on electronic commerce, which could benefit from looking at greater international co-operation to facilitate the cross-border movement of goods and services, narrow the digital divide, and level the playing field for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.

“Many ICT-related policy responses by governments during the pandemic have related to expanding access. These are important issues to be considered when devising strategies and policy frameworks aimed at facilitating e-commerce to ensure that it is truly inclusive and serves as an opportunity for development,” the WTO said.


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