Asean must keep trade flowing to beat coronavirus: Koh Poh Koon


There is a need to keep global trade flowing to ensure the supply of essential goods and services in order to overcome the Covid-19 crisis, said Senior Minister of State for Health Koh Poh Koon yesterday.

He added that member states of regional organisation Asean need to work together "to show the world that we are open for business", and emphasised that countries must cooperate to uphold a rules-based global trading system and maintain supply-chain connectivity in these difficult times.

Speaking during the opening of a three-day virtual 35th Asean Roundtable, themed The Covid-19 Crisis: Impact on Asean and the Way Forward, Dr Koh also upheld factors such as digitalisation and vaccine multilateralism as ways for Asean to emerge from the crisis.

The event is organised by the Asean Studies Centre of the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

He said the pandemic exposed the fragility of global value chains by disrupting cross-border trade and transport. There are uncertainties in how long countries' lockdown measures will last, when a vaccine will be available, and the risk of second waves of infection.

"Against this backdrop, there is a clear need to keep trade flowing, both to ensure the supply of essential goods and services, and to send a signal of confidence for the global economy. Trade is essential to save both lives and livelihoods," he said.

He added that with the temporary closures of retail outlets and companies shifting to remote work arrangements, Covid-19 has pushed digitalisation "from a strategic priority to an operational imperative".

"Asean countries need to bridge the digital divide by accelerating investments in ICT (information and communications technology) infrastructure, ensuring affordable Internet access and improving digital literacy in our people," he said, adding that governments need to create a legal framework for the digital economy and digitalise public services.

Dr Koh added that Asean should work with partners and multilateral entities, such as the World Health Organisation, to "procure an equitable, steady and affordable supply of treatments and vaccines when these are developed and available".

Adding that "no one can be safe unless everyone is safe", he called for Asean members to build upon a Declaration on Asean Vaccine Security and Self-Reliance adopted at the 35th Asean Summit last year, and work together to produce and distribute vaccines in the region.

Dr Koh said Asean's solidarity was evident by the sharing of information in the early days of the pandemic, along with donations of test kits and personal protective equipment between countries. The first step to Asean's recovery is in managing and containing the outbreak regionally and preventing subsequent waves of infection, he added.

"This can be done by expanding testing capacity to diagnose cases early, speeding up contact tracing to identify and isolate close contacts of infected persons, and ensuring sufficient healthcare capacity to deal with the potential surge of Covid-19 cases that surely must be expected as economies gradually reopen," he said.

Dr Koh added that Asean is at a crossroads and that how it responds to the crisis will determine whether it forges ahead of the competition or falls behind.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2020, with the headline Asean must keep trade flowing to beat coronavirus: Koh Poh Koon. Subscribe