The Pandemic is Far from Over

Singapore, 22 April 2021
  • By Denis Hew

After a year of COVID-19 lockdowns, inequality mires recovery

Hope washed over the world when the first credible news of vaccines started appearing on news feeds. And while this meant that there is light at the end of the tunnel, not everyone can see it just yet.

This month alone brought its fair share of discouraging statistics. A year after settling into the fact that we are now facing a pandemic, 5.2 million people worldwide have been infected, and 3 million have died.

APEC member economies account for a little over one-third of global COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The region is still in recovery from one of the worst economic contractions of the past 50 years. In some areas, lockdowns are even stricter now than they were a year ago. Disruptions in supply chains caused global shortages of goods such as semiconductors, which is causing major setbacks in industries such as car manufacturing and consumer electronics. Commercial services continue to plunge, the most affected being the transport and travel sectors, which have contracted by almost 60 percent, threatening a surge of joblessness in the hundreds of millions.

The difference in 2021 is that there is some good news that comes with the bad. Mass inoculation is successfully underway in some economies. Trade performance has improved, especially for medical supplies and home office equipment, surprising no one. Thanks to various forms of government fiscal measures—some amounting to over 20 percent of GDP—domestic consumption rose, allowing for signs of economic recovery to show toward the second half of 2020. We are expecting an even stronger recovery in 2021 and 2022, of 5.7 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively.

After some good and bad news, now the ugly: economic growth will be uneven among APEC economies and so will the pace of inoculations. The speed and strength of economic recovery will very much depend on the effective management of the pandemic and a successful rollout of the vaccination program.

Some economies are facing a surge in infections under a second, third or even fourth wave. Of the 21 members of APEC, less than a fourth will likely achieve a vaccination rate of 60 to 70 percent of the population by this year. A little more than half of the membership is projected to achieve this in 2022, while the rest will limp toward herd immunity in 2023.

This is worrisome for many reasons, foremost of which is that unequal access to vaccines could hamper or even reverse gains in controlling the pandemic in the long run. If the virus still exists uncontrolled in one place, it will almost definitely mutate and spread to other places—i.e., we’re only truly out of it when we’re all out of it.

Furthermore, equity among economies was one of the first goals of the APEC forum, laid out clearly in the first paragraph of the 1994 Bogor Declaration. The ready availability of the vaccine for some and the scarcity for others makes it evident that there are still lines dividing haves and have-nots in the region, which just piles on the notion that COVID-19 has exposed the numerous inequalities embedded in society. This divide exists among and within economies, where a few have access to healthcare and economic opportunity while many have been historically starved of these—the pandemic just catastrophically blew this wide open.

These are problems that should not be borne by any single economy alone. APEC could play a more proactive role in building back better in the short term and planning for the long term. The forum should be used as a platform for fostering a better understanding among the membership of effective quarantine measures, travel corridors, health requirements and health protocols. This will encourage a more equal recovery and will allow the gradual opening of borders.

APEC can champion regional coordination for the rapid production and free flow of vaccines and essential medical goods to provide low-income economies better access to a range of vaccines. With its various subfora on trade, standards, intellectual property, science and health, APEC is uniquely positioned—and is expected—to contribute to vaccine equity in the region and around the world.

APEC can play a crucial role in helping economies navigate the post-COVID economic landscape. This contribution includes sharing policies and best practices for developing more innovative industries in the new decade and to further hasten our uptake of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies.

Such policy discussions would encourage greater adoption of the digital economy while examining its pros as well as its cons. As firms accelerate their move towards automation because of the pandemic, for example, certain jobs might be put at risk. Policymakers of the 2020s will have to be mindful of this, especially during the years of recovery.

These discussions will also necessarily bring up investments in green jobs and infrastructure, as well as initiatives to ensure equitable access to healthcare, education, skills training and social protection. The post-pandemic years will be an important opportunity for governments to initiate or step up in implementing long overdue structural reforms.

The Putrajaya Vision 2040, agreed upon by Leaders last year, indicates our collective commitment to these pursuits. The challenge now is to transition the rhetoric into clear, actionable policies that can be implemented over the coming years.

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Dr Hew is the director of the APEC Policy Support Unit.

Photo credit: Ringo Chiu / Shutterstock.com