Coronavirus: The Great Disruption

Challenges and opportunities for South-east Asia in post-Covid-19 world

Upheavals are inevitable but the pandemic is not without areas that the region can turn to its advantage. What's needed is cooperation and a willingness to adapt.

The world as we know it will never be the same again.

In due course, Covid-19 will be brought under control but it would have left its mark on our way of life, on business and on how governments govern. While no one is able to grasp the full extent of the changes to come, some things are discernible at this stage.

For South-east Asia, these are some key trends and issues that will have a bearing on its future and which its leaders would need to take heed of and address if the region is to successfully navigate the challenges ahead:

FOOD AND HEALTH SECURITY

Food security and health security will rise in importance in all international fora where policies and action plans are formulated, be they Asean leaders' summits, dialogues with its partners, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gatherings or the East Asia Summit.

Matters of food sufficiency and safety, medical technology and self-sufficiency of supplies will also feature strongly in the national agenda of all Asean member states.

Another outcome of Covid-19 is that it has spurred academic institutions in the region to work together to manufacture medical equipment and kits such as negative pressure units, face shields and masks, as well as robotic transporter units. The demands imposed by the pandemic have also acted as a positive catalyst in the rapid emergence of local technologists in these fields as well as greater collaboration, such as that between medical and engineering schools and between academia and the private sector.

This push towards working together is important in the South-east Asian context in view of a key lesson that governments are likely to draw from the trauma of lockdown and disrupted supplies, and that is - it is imperative to focus on the strengthening of the domestic economy and building self-sufficiency in sectors such as food and health so as to avoid facing shortfalls in future crises.

While the sentiments are understandable, it would nonetheless be much wiser for countries, especially in this region, to see how they could mutually strengthen food and health security.

For example, food-abundant Thailand and Singapore, with its advanced technology and management, should join hands to enhance food and health security for both countries and the region. Countries with different comparative advantages in Asean could pair up to collaborate in many other ways to turn this region into a centre for food and health security.


Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc chairing a special video conference in Hanoi on April 14 with Asean leaders, where they called for unity as the region battles the coronavirus pandemic.  PHOTO: REUTE

THE RISE OF NATIONALISM

In 2003, when I was Foreign Minister of Thailand, Asean was confronted with a major health crisis - Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

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At the initiative of then Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, a special summit of leaders of Asean and China was convened in Bangkok, miraculously taking place with just seven days' notice and preparation, attended by all the 11 leaders, each accompanied by their respective health experts.

A unanimous decision was taken to adopt a set of common public health standards and uniform measures at airports, seaports and border checkpoints in all 11 countries to contain the contagion. The summit provided an extremely useful forum for exchanges of information, knowledge and experiences.

Special contact points in all 11 countries were designated. We were able to bring an end to the outbreak within two to three months.

Avian flu struck the region in 2003-2004. Bangkok convened meetings of over 30 health and agriculture ministers and officials as well as experts from international organisations to exchange best practices and suggestions to stop the disease. The avian flu was brought under control within a short period of time.

Asean governments too, need a lot of help in e-government and e-education, to reskill and upskill their people to match the new normal in order to survive in the post-Covid-19 world. I can see a very constructive and leading role that Singapore could play, in close collaboration with its Asean friends, to ensure that the people of South-east Asia adapt themselves successfully to the changing circumstances.

The time to do so is now. Even though the difficulties of discerning what the post-Covid-19 world looks like remain, the readiness to respond matters.

In the two previous outbreaks, the national interest of South-east Asian governments in protecting their respective populations was expressed through and helped to reinforce regionalism and multilateralism. The governments then saw no incompatibility in living up to their first duty of the state - to protect its people - from working together with other nations to combat a common public health menace.

It is, however, noteworthy that up to the middle of last month, although health officials and sectoral ministers in Asean have been in close touch, each country has gone its own way in response to the coronavirus.

For example, some closed their borders, others have not; some locked down cities, others have not; some banned international travel, others have not.

One would have hoped that Asean members could have done more to work closely together, as in the past, to tackle this pandemic.

 
 

Covid-19 respects no borders but, instead of adopting a transboundary approach to fight it, many countries around the world are today more focused on tackling it domestically, within their own borders.

In this upsurge of Covid-19-related nationalism, we have witnessed countries outside of the region divert medical equipment and supplies meant for others or ban their export for fear of not having enough for their citizens. While it is not wrong for governments to prioritise national survival in times of crises, the fact that international cooperation is being pushed aside should be of great concern, especially given its implications for the post-Covid-19 world. In this regard, we must continue to reiterate the importance of international cooperation to fight the pandemic. It is indeed the role of multilateralism to fight something which knows no boundaries.

MULTILATERAL INSTITUTIONS VERSUS REGIONAL ORGANISATIONS

Despite the disappointment with international cooperation during the pandemic and the shortcomings and limited role of multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organisation, Food and Agriculture Organisation, World Trade Organisation or the World Bank in quickly fostering cooperation, we have started to see cooperation among regional organisations.

Leaders of Asean and Asean Plus Three (China, South Korea and Japan) held a video conference on April 14 on how to strengthen cooperation in fighting Covid-19.

In recent weeks, we have seen similar efforts in public health and economic cooperation at the regional level, among members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the African Union, the European Union and the Organisation of American States. We have seen China actively helping many countries in Europe and Asia.

Perhaps regional organisations are to become the leading institutions for global cooperation. Perhaps an individual country extending unilateral assistance directly to selected countries similarly afflicted will be the customary practice. This "fragmented globalisation" seems to define the world at present and probably after Covid-19.

But what would be the role of the US and China, the world's No. 1 and No. 2 economies in terms of gross domestic product size, after the pandemic abates?

 

Can the current US leadership enable the United States to be a world political balancer or economic helper that nations can trust? Can China, with its own debt problems to sort out, continue to extend huge economic assistance, or be the engine for economic growth in Asia and beyond? What role can the EU play, given its own economic problems and issues with regional cooperation? As for Russia, its international role remains uncertain in view of the impact of the oil price plunge and the pandemic.

Given what we are seeing currently, the post Covid-19 world may not be a bipolar one. Rather, it is likely to be a multipolar world, with regional organisations becoming key players. In future, leadership may be diffused depending on the issues. Some may be military superpowers, some may be economic superpowers, while some may be technology superpowers and others, food and public health superpowers. No superpower will be able to be a super power in all areas. New areas of food and health, on which the world will become even more reliant, may come to be dominated by different powers from those of the past.

Would an issues-based, multipolar world define how international relations are conducted in future? If it does, where does Asean stand in a fragmented post-Covid-19 world? What should Asean's strategy be in carving out a role for itself in a world where food and health security are of growing importance?

LIFESTYLE AND BUSINESS

This is another area where the world will never be the same. With the rise of digital technology in areas such as communications and conferences, education, financial services, medicine, lifestyle and retail, businesses associated with these technologies will benefit immensely.

Conventional tourism, conventional export-oriented growth strategies, conventional manufacturing industries and conventional logistic deliveries are the losers in this great disruption.

Business tourism, for instance, will suffer as companies turn to teleconferencing. Many industries have turned to robots and artificial intelligence to overcome the challenges posed by the need to avoid infections.

While these changes are undeniably happening, the biggest challenge for us is determining the magnitude of such changes. The only certainty is uncertainty. It is a problem because the unknown magnitude of these changes would certainly make it very difficult to adapt oneself for the changes to come.

Again, South-east Asian countries will have to ask themselves: How do they - individually and collectively - prepare for disruptive changes of lifestyle and business? How will the motto "People-centred Asean" and the much talked about idea of "leaving no one behind" get implemented in the post-Covid-19 world?

THE WORLD ECONOMY

As for the world economy, we have seen both massive fiscal and monetary stimuli in almost all countries, the size of which depends on their economic ability to do so. We have also seen how short-lived the positive responses of the financial markets to central banks' monetary policies and governments' fiscal stimulus are when confronted with spikes in the number of Covid-19 cases.

Governments are confronted with finding the right balance between public health policy and economic policy. If public health policy is too strict, the danger is that the costs imposed on people and businesses, large or small, will be too much to bear. Striking an equilibrium is not easy.

The future will see countries struggling to keep financing the fiscal and monetary measures launched to fight the pandemic. Raising taxes is one option. But the challenge is how to do it in such a way that will not increase the burden on the poor, the underprivileged and those whose jobs have been wiped out during the lockdown period.

And what will happen to the world economy if over 200 countries and economies are facing the same financing problems? What will happen to the oil industry and major businesses linked to it if demand for fuel and gas takes a much longer time to be restored to pre-Covid-19 levels? What if demand never gets back to where it was?

The debate on how long the Covid-19 crisis will last or when the world economy will recover is ongoing. Would the recovery be U-shaped or V-shaped or even W-shaped? Whatever the shape, the "new normal" is something thinkers and policymakers around the world would need to grapple with and come up with ways to ensure that people can better prepare themselves for the upheavals and not be left behind.

A CALL TO ACTION

The changes in the international strategic landscape - with their various political, economic and technological implications - reinforce the need for a redesign of Asean's strategy for the future.

Asean leaders and ministers should increase cooperation in areas where there is potential for Asean to play a meaningful regional or even global role in a multipolar, multi-issue-based world. Food and health security should be an urgent priority on the agenda, with each Asean member state pitching in and pooling what it is able to offer by way of potential and comparative advantages in order to come up with an Asean community blueprint and action plan.

Asean should also step up cooperation to promote regionalism as a way to fight the pandemic. Asean nations cooperated effectively during previous crises such as Sars, the avian flu, the 2004 tsunami and Cyclone Nargis in 2008. We can never protect nor help our people effectively if each country goes it alone. The more we love our people, the more we have to turn to international cooperation.

Asean leaders and ministers should design a programme to educate people on what the post-Covid-19 world would likely look like and how the people in this region should respond and adapt quickly to the disruptions that loom for their way of life and livelihood.

Asean governments, too, need a lot of help in e-government and e-education, to reskill and upskill their people to match the new normal in order to survive in the post-Covid-19 world. I can see a very constructive and leading role that Singapore could play, in close collaboration with its Asean friends, to ensure that the people of South-east Asia adapt themselves successfully to the changing circumstances.

The time to do so is now.

Even though the difficulties of discerning what the post-Covid-19 world looks like remain, the readiness to respond matters.

As Charles Darwin has said: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable."

  • Professor Surakiart Sathirathai is chairman of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council and former deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Thailand.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2020, with the headline 'Challenges and opportunities for S-E Asia in post-Covid-19 world'. Subscribe