TOKYO - The unequal access of vaccines across Asia will jeopardise the region's economic recovery from Covid-19, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Thursday (May 20), as he vowed to provide the necessary logistical support to facilitate the equitable distribution of shots.
This will be high on the agenda as Mr Suga hosts the Covax Advance Market Commitment (AMC) summit on June 2, he told the 26th Nikkei Future of Asia conference. The Covax AMC is a global effort by developed countries to buy and distribute shots to poorer countries.
"Japan will continue to make efforts to ensure equitable access to safe and effective vaccines throughout the world, including developing countries," Mr Suga said, adding that Japan will support the development of cold chain logistics that are vital for vaccine delivery at sub-zero temperatures.
The challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic took centre stage on the first day of the fully online two-day conference, for which The Straits Times is a media partner. The Future of Asia, organised by Japanese media giant Nikkei, is an annual forum that gathers regional leaders for geopolitical and economic discussions.
Earlier, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar criticised the hoarding of vital medical supplies, oxygen and vaccines amid the nationalism that was evident for much of the pandemic.
"The nature of the Covid-19 experience has brought to the fore concerns of trust and transparency. Opacity can no longer be overlooked. It has real implications for the rest of the world," he said, in a veiled criticism of the European Union and the United States. "Stresses induced narrow definitions of self-interest and departures from collective endeavours. Few practised what they preached, and some even stopped preaching altogether."
China's former central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan, likewise, said that Covid-19 had exposed the fragility of global healthcare systems.
But he added: "A major challenge is to ensure quick access to affordable vaccines, and Japan, China, South Korea and India are shouldering an important mission as key actors in the global research and development of new drugs and therapies."
Still, Mr Suga's address failed to mention the domestic pressures he is facing on the Covid-19 front. Japan, the world's third-largest economy, is vaccinating its population at about the same rate as Myanmar, now under a military regime.
The Covid-19 death rate is higher in the western prefecture of Osaka (235 deaths per million people) than in India (208 deaths per million).
A state of emergency now covers nine prefectures, including Tokyo and Osaka, with a decision on a 10th - Okinawa - likely due on Friday, following a surge in cases.
There are, however, some bright spots that will give Mr Suga hope that a "safe and secure" Olympic Games can be held in Tokyo in two months - a pledge that he repeated on Thursday.
Japan on Thursday approved vaccines by Moderna and AstraZeneca, while mass vaccination centres are due to start operations in Tokyo and Osaka next Monday.
New cases have dipped in hot spots such as Tokyo and Osaka in recent days, though experts continue to warn against letting one's guard down, given the virulent nature of the mutant strains that have become mainstream.
Mr Suga has begun to chart his vision of post-Covid-19 growth that is centred on areas such as digitalisation and clean energy, which he pledged to work closely with Asean on, under the infrastructure thrust of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
He told the Nikkei forum on Thursday that Japan will take the lead in the creation of international rules for next-generation telecommunication standards.
He said Japan aimed to build a free and open digital space across the Indo-Pacific through the development of legal systems, infrastructure and human resources.
To this end, Mr Suga cited projects facilitated through Japan's overseas development assistance such as an IT system for Customs clearance in Vietnam, as well as digital-based disaster prevention technology for Nepal.
Still, despite its high-tech image, Japan has been hit by domestic setbacks, including a Covid-19 contact tracing application that failed to work for months and a buggy vaccination appointment website that allowed fake registrations.
A new digital agency will be launched in September to streamline its domestic digital efforts, Mr Suga said.
Mr Suga also addressed climate change as a key priority in growth.
He added: "To move ahead with decarbonisation is a challenge that the entire humankind should aim to resolve without wasting time."
Japan has set a goal to reduce its carbon emissions by 46 per cent by 2030, and to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2050.
"The road to controlling Covid-19 infections and to the recovery of society and the economy will not be smooth," he said. "But Japan is determined to lead a strong recovery of Asia, which is the growth centre of the world."