SINGAPORE - Asia-Pacific economies should support one another to tackle pandemics, and countries whose vaccination programmes are ahead should make their excess vaccine supplies available to others, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday (July 16).
Singapore therefore intends to donate its vaccines under the Covax initiative to other countries, he told a virtual gathering of leaders from the 21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) members.
Some 43 per cent of Singapore's population is now fully vaccinated, and the country is on track to cover two-thirds of the population by next month. Covax is a global vaccine distribution scheme that aims to ensure an equitable supply for lower and middle-income countries.
In his speech to fellow leaders, PM Lee said Apec members must work together to prepare for the next pandemic, rebuild connections and liberalise trade, and pursue new areas of growth.
The leaders met at a special Apec Informal Leaders' Retreat chaired by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to shape a regional response to the recovery from Covid-19. This is the first time they have held an additional meeting before their formal year-end gathering, due in November.
PM Lee said Covid-19 will not be the last, nor the most serious, pandemic the world will face, and security from pandemics depends on bolstering multilateralism.
This calls for a major step-up in collective investments, including a scaled-up global surveillance system for emerging infectious disease outbreaks, which the Group of 20 (G-20) High Level Independent Panel made a strong case for in its recent report, he noted.
"We need a more agile global governance and financing mechanism that can swiftly plug gaps in global health security," he said.
"Within our region, Apec economies should support one another, both for the present and future pandemics. For example, through technical assistance to strengthen national public health capabilities, the last mile."
He added that while countries are understandably working towards more self-reliance, especially for essential goods, amid disrupted international trade and movement of people across borders, they should not take this too far.
"Free trade is still essential to global economic recovery and prosperity," he said.
"We should also work together to restart international travel safely, by developing common standards for digital vaccine certificates and digital identities."
Topics the leaders discussed on Friday included speeding up the flow of vaccines; strong, balanced, secure, sustainable and inclusive growth; innovation and digitalisation; and fiscal and monetary tools to sustain economies through the pandemic, as well as the importance of keeping markets open to one another.
"We must ensure our health systems cover all people and have the resilience to cope with current and future shocks. We welcome the varied and continuous efforts as well as the contribution of additional resources across Apec to combat the pandemic," they said in a joint statement after the meeting.
The leaders also reaffirmed their commitment to an open, dynamic, resilient and peaceful Asia-Pacific community by 2040, for the prosperity of future generations.
In his remarks, PM Lee said that Covid-19 has accelerated the switch to a digital economy, and countries should cooperate on new areas of economic growth.
Singapore, for example, has piloted Digital Economy Agreements with like-minded economies such as New Zealand, Chile and Australia - all Apec members.
These agreements align rules and standards, and foster cross-border digital interoperability, data flows and trade.
Beyond Covid-19, the green economy presents another growth opportunity, he said. He noted that like many Apec members, Singapore is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and has a comprehensive national strategy called the Singapore Green Plan 2030 to mitigate climate change and create a green, liveable and sustainable city.
"But being a very small country, our own mitigation efforts will have limited impact. It is only by working together with others that we can overcome this global challenge, and that is why Singapore is exploring Green Economy Agreements to facilitate trade and investment in environmental goods and services, and strengthen environmental governance and capabilities."
Ms Ardern, who chaired the meeting, said the discussions had focused on all aspects of the global vaccination effort, from making vaccines and sharing them, to using them.
"Nobody is safe from this virus until everyone is safe. Ensuring both global vaccine access and uptake is as high as possible in the shortest time possible gives our regional and individual economies the greatest chance to accelerate recovery, and will support greater economic stability," she said.
Apec, she added, is also pushing for practical solutions to safely reconnect with the world, by exploring options such as vaccine passports, travel green lanes and quarantine-free travel bubbles.
"We have the opportunity to build back better and emerge from this crisis more inclusive, more sustainable and more adaptable than ever. And in order to achieve this as fast as possible, we need to do it together."
There have been more than 50 million cases of Covid-19 within Apec's borders, with over one million deaths.
Apec-wide gross domestic product contracted by 1.9 per cent last year, the biggest fall since World War II. While economic growth is recovering, around 81 million jobs have been lost due to the pandemic.
The economic forum, which includes the United States, China and Japan, agreed last month to review trade barriers and expedite the cross-border transit of Covid-19 vaccines and related goods, but stopped short of a broad commitment to remove tariffs.
New Zealand has said leading a regional response to the pandemic is its highest priority as Apec chairman.