The United Nations has commended governments in South-East Asia for acting swiftly to stem the most serious health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Robust regional cooperation, coordinated by ASEAN, has also resulted in South-East Asia reporting significantly lower confirmed COVID-19 cases and related deaths compared to most other global regions. The UN Secretary-General’s Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on South-East Asia issued today warns that these early successes must be translated into addressing the serious socio-economic setbacks which threaten to further deepen inequalities across the region. The new UN report examines how COVID-19 has affected eleven countries in South-East Asia and proposes action-oriented recommendations on mitigating immediate impacts and planning pathways out of the crisis.
The report is part of a series of policy briefs issued by the United Nations that examine the sectoral and geographical dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world.
“As in other parts of the world, the health, economic and political impact of COVID-19 has been significant across South-East Asia — hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. The pandemic has highlighted deep inequalities, shortfalls in governance and the imperative for a sustainable development pathway. And it has revealed new challenges, including to peace and security,” shared UN Secretary General António Guterres, adding that while the region has much work to do, it also has formidable capacities at its disposal.
“The Brief highlights the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on vulnerable groups, particularly workers in the informal economy. The crisis is threatening to push them back into poverty and unemployment. Responding to the pandemic and delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals are closely interlinked. We need a future that is more equitable, sustainable and resilient,” noted United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana.
Moving forward, four areas will be critical in the region’s plans for recovery: tackling inequality, bridging the digital divide, greening the economy, and upholding human rights and good governance. The uneven landscape of social protection systems has placed tackling inequality at the centre of both short and long-term recovery efforts, according to the report. Increased investments to strengthen health systems and accelerate progress towards universal healthcare will be critical to support those excluded from a formal policy and social protection measures.
Digital technology has also proved to be a critical tool in response to the pandemic. However, the benefits it offers are beyond the reach of the 55% of South-East Asia’s population who remain offline. A regionally coordinated and scaled up effort is needed to put in place next-generation infrastructure networks and ensure universal digital connectivity, highlights the Brief.
The crisis presents an opportunity for countries to re-orient their development towards sustainability particularly through green recovery packages. Stimulus packages should be directed to industries that are low-carbon, resource-efficient and aligned with environmental and climate objectives. By phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, countries could finance most or all of their current stimulus packages. Such measures would create massive fiscal space and greatly boost low carbon alternatives such as renewable energy and energy efficiency.
The Brief further underscores that countries in South-East Asia and their leaders can play an important role in upholding human rights and good governance practices in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders can leverage community-based organizations, promote inclusion, participation and unity; and speak out against discrimination.
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