Can community gardens be a potential “basket” in Singapore’s food security strategy? As a “Fourth Food Basket” community gardens can complement imports, commercial domestic production, and overseas production, especially through the use of digital technologies.
SINGAPORE’S ‘30-by-30’ food security strategy is under pressure from three global challenges of climate change; supply chain disruptions induced by COVID-19; and a growing global demand for food. Can it leverage unconventional means to produce more food locally, through a “fourth basket”, and if so, what would that be?
In Singapore’s 30-by-30 food security strategy, the country has set an ambitious target of locally producing 30% of its nutritional needs by 2030. It is envisaged that this will be achieved by expanding supplies from local vegetable, egg and fish farms, new investments in alternative proteins such as plant-based protein and cultured meat, and new technologies to create food from waste. All these represent one of the three “baskets” for food security for Singapore, i.e., the local production basket.
Community Gardens: Potential “Fourth Basket” for Leafy Vegetables
For leafy vegetables, imports make up the largest food basket, contributing 86% of local vegetables supplies (about 80,000 tonnes). Two other baskets, namely imports and potentially growing overseas, contribute the remaining 14% of the country’s leafy vegetable supplies.
Will these three food baskets be adequate to meet Singapore’s food needs in the face of climate change (as in the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s 6th Assessment Report), COVID-19 induced supply chain disruptions, and growing global demand for food? Can it produce more food locally, through a “fourth basket” consisting of community gardens in available spaces?
The imperative is to shorten food supply chains to buttress against growing production and supply-chain risks and uncertainties. Singapore’s food resilience can potentially be boosted by significantly upscaling the amount of local production within unused spaces, through community gardens.
Community gardening is counted as a “non-commercial” source of food in Singapore, unlike typical commercial farms such as Sky Greens and Comcrop, which are run as corporate entities. Community garden initiatives include growing food on public estates, private estates, institutions/organisations (schools, hospitals).
An earlier study showed HDB rooftops can provide 661 hectares of space for farming purposes, while the National Parks Board (NParks) has also allocated more than 2,000 plots (2.5 square metres each) of allotment gardens in over 23 parks/gardens. There is further scope to expand the use of unused spaces like interim land and industrial spaces.
However, community gardens’ contributions to national food security have not been substantial in adding to the base level of national vegetable production. There is no category in Singapore Food Authority (SFA) reports that outlines the contributions of community gardens to food availability in Singapore.
Locally produced vegetables are mostly from private companies/brands, as in NTUC Fairprice’s website (Singapore’s largest retailer). We argue this is plausibly because published guidelines in the SFA’s “industry guide” for selling products are currently tailored to commercial farms. Individuals setting up their own commercial farms go through a long series of steps, which take up to 12 weeks to accomplish, including coordination with potentially 11 government agencies in Singapore.
Therefore, hobby farmers within community gardens they need to undergo the same process of receiving the licence and certification as commercial farmers to sell their products, even if they do not ordinarily have the commensurate organisational capacity to comply with the complexity of such requirements.
A further challenge is from the perspective of low levels of productivity within non-commercial community gardens. It is understandable that, given their limited time and investments, hobby farmers will not be as productive as the commercial farmers.
However, low productivity is not unrelated to the regulatory challenges in selling their produce. If community gardeners are unable to market their products, owing to their lack of organisational capacity to comply with the requirements, then there is also no incentive to boost their productivity levels.
A “chicken-and-egg” problem therefore exists of low productivity levels reducing the investments of time and resources by community farmers in growing food, and in turn, low productivity levels occurring as a result of these low time investments. Further issues include limited farmer expertise and limited marketing information on crops and pricing.
Potential Solutions: “Kampong” Clusters and Digital Technologies
One way forward in addressing these challenges is through organisational innovation, or by encouraging communities to cluster together within their neighbourhoods (“kampongs”) to form a corporate entity. Individual members can help share the time and resources required for registering their farms and receiving the licences to sell their products.
This is not completely novel, as there are ad hoc approaches that are already in play. The Open Farm Community (OFC) is a restaurant that taps community produce, to the extent feasible, combined with commercially sourced products, while the Edible Garden City (EGC) provides space for farmers to grow their food, and helps market them to over 220 dining establishments across Singapore.
Another potential approach is by leveraging digital technologies in transforming how community gardening is done, reducing the time and resources required of community farmers in growing food while boosting productivity.
These include digital farmer advisory applications to guide farmers in improving productivity and addressing crop pests/diseases; automated irrigation to make farming less tedious while increasing water use efficiency; satellite and drone imagery to help monitor crops; digital labelling for food safety; and e-commerce for marketing products.
However, these digital technologies too are currently tailored to commercial farms, and not readily available to community gardeners. To bridge this gap, food-related agencies can potentially commission “digital-readiness assessments”. These can be on community gardeners’ farmer attitudes towards digital technology adoption; the openness of the private sector to cater to community gardeners; and private capacity to provide such services.
While many community gardeners may not be farming for profit but do so as a lifestyle activity, it is worthwhile exploring how community gardens can contribute to Singapore’s vegetable supply given the extensive presence of unused space, and the income generation potential of this initiative. However, this requires no less than a mindset change on the part of regulators, the private sector, and the gardeners themselves.
About the Authors
Jose M.L. Montesclaros is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Paul Teng is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the NTS Centre as well as Managing Director and Dean, NIE International Pte Ltd, a subsidiary of NTU.
The care of nature offers holistic solutions to a wide range of issues that include climate change and the pandemic. The emerging concept of planetary health has the potential to contribute and, if widely adopted, may lead to a more resilient world post-COVID-19.
Protest at COP26….Will world leaders find a balance between human health and planetary health? Credit to Alamy
WORLD LEADERS currently gathered at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow are making a commitment to end deforestation by 2030. The new multibillion-dollar pledge in the climate summit manifests a renewed and stronger interest in nature-based solutions. The care of nature has indeed come into sharper focus in recent years.
It is perceived to offer more holistic solutions to multiple environmental issues and their attendant consequences that include the current COVID-19 pandemic. Among the various theories that explain the causes of the global health crisis, nature decline has emerged as a plausible answer. This view posits that degenerating nature increases the risks of zoonotic disease outbreak and spread ─ from animals to humans.
Planetary Interdependence and Southeast Asia
This context set the foundation for the concept of planetary health to gain some traction. As an emerging idea, planetary health focuses on the interdependence of human health and the health of the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified this critical interdependence. This framing positions environmental protection, conservation, and restoration as a key element to building a more resilient world post-COVID-19.
The paradox is seen in nature’s continuing decline regardless of the existence of various institutions established to protect and conserve biodiversity.
The Southeast Asian experience is a case in point. ASEAN-led initiatives are found in the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), the ASEAN Working Group on Coastal and Marine Environment (AWGCME), and the ASEAN Working Group on Nature Conservation and Biodiversity (AWGNCB).
Other sub-regional arrangements include the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area between the Philippines and Malaysia; Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion (SSME) in the Coral Triangle between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines; and the Heart of Borneo ─ one of the most important centres of biodiversity in the world ─ between Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
ASEAN not on Track
Despite their comprehensive mandate, the latest 2017 ASEAN Biodiversity Outlook 2 report concludes that ASEAN member states had not been on track to meet the Aichi Biodiversity targets due in 2020 as part of a multilateral treaty. Of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity targets agreed to in Aichi, Nagoya, good progress was made only in one target area, namely in designating certain percentages of terrestrial, inland water, coastal and marine areas as protected areas.
The report elaborates on reasons behind such a lack of progress, among which was inadequate action taken to address the drivers and pressures of biodiversity loss that often originated from other sectors. Examples of such drivers include increasing resource demand for income and food, growing population in coastal area, marine debris and pollution, excessive and direct fish take, and habitat destruction.
These observations imply that biodiversity protection and conservation efforts have largely been confined within their own domain and are not purposefully designed to mitigate the sources of threats to biodiversity loss.
Additionally, the works of these regional institutions were often found to be rather fragmented and in need of stronger coordination, cooperation and collaboration between agencies. Problems include conflicting policy objectives among sectors and government levels, and fragmented programs activities between ministry in charge of biodiversity protection and other institutions.
This partly explains why environmental degradation continues in the region.
Planetary Health Concept: Better Approach?
In light of these apparent limitations, the concept of planetary health may offer a better approach. The concept embodies systems thinking and encourages systems change that may lead to the embodiment of environmental protection and conservation as the overarching guiding principle across different sectors.
It offers an integrative approach that can bring synergies and coordinated policy action to otherwise conflicting agenda such as land-use planning and biodiversity protection; and more consistent policies and more coherent interventions in other sectors to minimise trade-offs among different targets and achieve environmental goals.
A stronger emphasis on nature across different sectors will strengthen environmental regulations, boost their enforcements, and enhance their monitoring capacity. Moreover, due to its focus on the environment, the planetary health concept can generate co-benefits to other green initiatives.
For example, its adoption across sectors may lead to significant improvement in resource efficiency, sustainable agricultural intensification, cleaner production processes, reduction in food loss and waste, improved access to food and good nutrition, and changes in lifestyle, consumption preferences and consumer behaviours.
The planetary health concept thus has the potential to address the various gaps identified in existing biodiversity protection and conservation arrangements in Southeast Asia. The concept can also be applied to similar initiatives at the national and international levels thereby contributing to better care of the planet.
Towards a More Resilient World Post-COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the spotlight on environmental degradation and reinforced the relevance of the environment-human health nexus. By linking the health of the Earth’s systems and human health, the planetary health concept is offering a pathway towards of more resilient world post-COVID-19.
Prioritising environmental protection and conservation not only could reduce the risks of future pandemic, but also it could contribute to solving triple planetary crisis of biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change.
The challenge, however, lies in the integration of the concept in different sectors. For it to be effective, concrete parameters and clear indicators need to be laid out to enable each sector to contribute meaningfully towards a healthier planet. These will lead to better policy synchronisation and coherence across sectors.
The involvement of multiple stakeholders including the epistemic or knowledge community, civil society, the business and health sectors, among others, is necessary to operationalise the planetary health concept in various settings. There is a need to provide credible quantification of the disease burden relating to biodiversity loss. Significantly, governments need to be convinced of its merits.
As countries continue to juggle between dealing with the virus and reviving the economy, the attention given to the concept of planetary health may not be immediately gaining steam. Regardless, considering its immediate relevance in view of the current public health crisis, and the greater emphasis placed on the care of nature to solve climate change issues, among others, more effort is critically needed to examine how it can be applied across sectors to create a more resilient world post-COVID-19.
About the Author
Margareth Sembiring is an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
This annual publication is the NTS Centre’s reflections on the events of the past year and contemplations on issues of non-traditional security in Southeast Asia and beyond. In 2021, the world recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic slowly while the virus kept mutating and spreading. Meanwhile, the effects of climate change continue to intensify, posing an existential threat to mankind and requiring immediate and decisive action of all countries. The NTS Year In Review 2021 includes a series of insightful articles on COVID-19 and climate change, highlighting possible mitigation measures and future actions. It comprises articles which discuss the intersections of different NTS challenges confronting the region, such as food security, climate change, migration, and humanitarian crises. These articles draw out some of the potential pathways for addressing the complex challenges in the region. We hope that you will find these articles useful in providing a holistic understanding of the kinds of challenges we face today. Finally, as always, we showcase our Centre’s activities for the year and the varied publications of our researchers in 2021.
Advancing Disaster Management Into A Future Of Possibilities
COVID-19 has impacted the way we work and function at all levels. The disaster management sector had to prepare for and manage disasters against the backdrop of COVID-19. Considering that the types, dynamics, and dimensions of disaster threats will be more complex in the future and require far more strategic analysis and preparation, it is prudent for organisations to rethink strategies and transform to strengthen capabilities and capacities for the future. Thus, the theme for SPDDM 2021 was “Advancing Disaster Management: Into a Future of Possibilities” to spark discourse on identifying future humanitarian trends, challenges, and opportunities. The theme also facilitated discussions on key outputs in the AADMER Work Programme 2021–2025 such as leadership, cooperation, technology, and innovation as well as effective resource mobilisation for stronger coordination among ASEAN Member States.
This event report summarises key points from the panel discussions and presentations. The first panel focused on how the ASEAN community could further localisation and regionalisation in disaster management. The discussion highlighted that national governments and international partners should provide continued support to grow local organisations as COVID-19 responses demonstrated their strengths and importance in dealing with disasters. Regional organisations such as ASEAN can be convening platforms for collaboration and coordination. Panel two discussed sustainable disaster finance options for the ASEAN region, which has been a regular topic of the SPDDM since 2015. The panellists emphasised the importance of anticipatory action and innovation in financing. The third panel and community session focused on the use of innovation and technology in disaster management. While acknowledging the importance of technology for disaster-related activities, the panellists discussed potential risks associated with the greater use of technology and explored how to mitigate negative impacts.
COP26 has reinforced much of what is already known about the impact of climate change on food production. But few concrete steps are emerging from COP26 that can improve the livelihoods of producers of the bulk of the world’s food.
CLIMATE CHANGE clearly affects food production. This in turn contributes at least a third of the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Efforts to keep temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius ─ the new “safe” upper-limit for global warming ─ are expected at best to give mixed results from climate mitigation action.
World population is anticipated to reach about 10 billion by 2050 accompanied by increased demand for food. Climate change action needs to strongly address the sustainability of food production systems. This must include the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers and animal herders who depend on these systems.
Sustaining Food Production and Farmer Livelihoods
Yet COP26 ─ the UN Climate Change Conference which ends this Friday (12 Nov 2021) ─ has so far provided little evidence that countries, whether acting individually or together, have the will to formulate concrete and meaningful action. Even more so, to provide financial support for small-scale farmers in developing countries, estimated at half a billion strong, to take action.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg was quoted as saying in Glasgow that much of the discourse at COP26 amounts to “hypocrisy” where action does not match intentions, or needs. And the thousands of young demonstrators in the streets outside COP26 seem to agree with her.
Sustainability discourse in the context of climate change must not only be about the environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects but also include an economic (livelihood) consideration. The sustainable agriculture movement of the 1980s used a set of rubrics based on “EES” (Environment, Economic and Social); it had non-government entities such as the International Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture as strong advocates.
The distinction between “EES” and “ESG” is particularly important for the world’s small-scale farmers and animal herders in the Asian-African regions who are responsible for most of the world’s food production. The economic (E) rubric recognises that small-scale farmers need to have decent livelihoods, without which they cannot sustain their farming and their families.
Climate action has therefore to take into account economic aspects of small-scale farming. It needs to reflect the voices of about 500 million smallholder farmers which are often missing or poorly represented at global meetings.
Wicked Problem: Food Production and Climate Change
Climate change action has the features of a “Wicked Problem” when the issues of climate change, sustainable agriculture and farmer livelihoods are considered together, which must be the case. Can a wicked problem be unpacked into parts which can be addressed separately and, in their solution, contribute to the overall solution?
Pragmatically, this may be the only approach. Agriculture contributes to climate change and climate change affects agriculture. The “whole is more than the sum of its parts”, and food production is only one component of food systems. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) views food systems as comprising “the entire range of actors and their interlinked value-adding activities”.
This involves “the production, aggregation, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal of food products that originate from agriculture, forestry or fisheries, and parts of the broader economic, societal and natural environments in which they are embedded”.
So the hope for humankind may be to unpack a big wicked problem associated with climate change into its components. Then follow this up by solving the component issues through cooperative efforts. This is in the hope that they may lead at least to a partial solution of the bigger wicked problem.
The Net-Zero Challenge
Agriculture is the second biggest contributor to global greenhouse gasses, but it is an activity that we cannot live without. COP26 has given much attention to agriculture-induced deforestation which severely unbalances the carbon equation. Attempts to reduce deforestation only tackle part of the problem if the needs of small-scale farmers are not part of the solution, and if technology is not used to produce more from existing farmland.
But there is a gap between actual livelihoods and practices at the farming community level and high-level pronouncements of policies and aspirations in international forums. How do we also ensure that the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in sustainable agriculture are not jeopardised by climate change action? These are but a sample of the questions associated with attempts to balance out the carbon equation in farming – the “net-zero” solution.
There is general agreement that global food demand will increase by at least 50 per cent by 2050. This demand has to be met in the face of the key challenge of climate change and with reduced capacity to grow food because of declining land and freshwater resources, and with declining (ageing) farmer numbers.
Concurrently, the call for sustainable farming has gotten louder, especially as we approach the 2030 deadline to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Increased sustainability, however, can only be achieved by intensifying research; adopting new farming approaches; technologies that contribute to a circular economy; and game-changing policies ─ all backed by political will.
Ultimately, there can be no sustainable development without addressing the inter-linked issues of climate change, livelihoods and food production.
The Greenwashing Phenomenon
Large corporations, much more than small enterprises or small-scale farmers and herders, have the means to report their achievements for meeting sustainability goals with climate action. In an earlier RSIS Commentary I had warned about the “Greenwashing” phenomenon to establish corporate credentials in sustainability, especially under the umbrella of abeyance with the “ESG” (Environment, Economics, Governance) rubrics.
In the COP26 talks, climate activists have rightly highlighted that some corporations have used the governance (G) rubric to support their sustainability and climate credentials, and be seen as responsible citizens.
But to protect agricultural ecosystems and reduce deforestation will require corporations and governments to explicitly factor in the interests of the half billion small-scale farmers and herders in developing countries.
About the Author
Paul Teng is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Singapore. He has been Co-Principal Investigator in a project on the effects of climate change on Singapore’s food sources.
At COP26, nuclear technology was promoted as “an indispensable tool” for addressing climate change and its harsh impacts. What do nuclear power and technology actually bring to the table?
COP26 ─ the UN Climate Change Conference ─ in Glasgow, the United Kingdom which ends this Friday (12 Nov 2021) has featured substantive discussions on how nuclear power and technology can help tackle climate change. The peaceful use of nuclear science and technology was strongly represented and articulated through the events organised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at COP26, with the goal of contributing to an informed debate on the benefits of nuclear power and applications.
Nuclear technology was promoted as “an indispensable tool” for achieving a Net Zero World. While tapping nuclear power remains a hotly debated issue, nuclear power and nuclear applications have a lot to contribute to getting global carbon emissions to net zero and boosting climate change adaptation measures. The IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said nuclear power should have a “seat at the table” at climate change discussions. What do nuclear energy and technology actually bring to the table?
Nuclear Power for a Low-Carbon Future?
Thirty-two countries operate nuclear power plants, which provide 10% of the world’s electricity and more than one quarter of all low-carbon electricity. The IAEA argued that the use of nuclear power has prevented the equivalent of around 70 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions over the past 50 years.
It strongly recommended that nuclear power generation capacity will need to at least double over the next three decades in order to limit the average global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius as called for by the Paris Agreement, according to the four model scenarios by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as studies by the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Major nuclear power producers such as the United States, Russia and China, have all included expanded nuclear power capacity in their national strategies to cut down their CO2 emissions. In particular, they are all actively developing the emerging technology of advanced and small modular reactors, being touted by the nuclear industry to be more affordable than large conventional nuclear power plants.
Currently, Russia has put into operation a floating modular reactor using this technology. Another nuclear innovation showcased at COP26 is the potential of nuclear hydrogen in decarbonising sectors, such as industry and transport, through the production of low-carbon hydrogen from nuclear power.
Debate Over Nuclear Power Contribution
The contribution of nuclear power plants in reducing greenhouse gas emissions remains debatable for other experts. Nonetheless, as demonstrated in COP26, nuclear energy must not be completely ruled out. For many countries, including those in Southeast Asia that are actively studying this option, it can play a complementary role with other low carbon sources such as renewables.
These innovations and the use of nuclear power should also be seen through climate change-energy security nexus, in which countries deploy nuclear power, not just to reduce their carbon emissions, but also to strengthen their energy security by diversifying their base-load power sources. In this respect, both nuclear power and renewables are complementary in providing low-carbon energy transition.
In Southeast Asia, especially the Philippines, the deployment of small, advanced small reactors are now being explored. This is in the event that they decide to pursue nuclear power electricity generation, in view of their need to diversify their energy sources and attain their low-carbon commitments.
However, there are key concerns associated with nuclear power such as nuclear safety and security issues; the need to update nuclear regulatory, emergency preparedness and response frameworks; the intractable nuclear waste issue; and more importantly, public acceptance to solidify the role of nuclear in addressing climate change.
Several countries in the region have yet to ratify key global nuclear safety and security treaties such as the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS) and the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), although gradual progress in this regard has been seen in the region in recent years.
Nuclear Technology in Climate Adaptation
While ongoing debates on the critical role of nuclear power plants in achieving the goals established in the 2015 Paris Agreement remain unsettled, the peaceful applications of nuclear technology in climate change adaptation have been expanding in recent years.
The nuclear discussions at COP26 demonstrated how governments, farmers and scientists can boost resilience to the impacts of climate change and institutionalise more sustainable management of land and water resources using nuclear science and technology.
For instance, nuclear and related techniques can boost agricultural resilience to climate change, in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and in increasing agricultural productivity – altogether known as climate-smart agriculture. In addressing water scarcity caused by the changing climate, a form of nuclear technique known as isotope hydrology can help countries monitor valuable groundwater resources, supporting decision makers in developing sustainable water use policies.
Such contributions of nuclear technology have been increasingly applied in Southeast Asia. Nuclear technology has helped farmers grow rice that can cope with the diverse effects of climate change. Recent innovations from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam showed how farmers have boosted rice production and planted better crops in harsh climate conditions in the past five years with the help of nuclear techniques.
In the past years, the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have been helping local scientists use nuclear technology to develop climate-smart agricultural practices and improve water management.
Addressing Fears and Misconceptions
However, there are still challenges to the expansion of the peaceful uses due to misconceptions or concerns about nuclear energy and technology. There is a need to reframe nuclear issues as one that links nuclear technology with climate change adaptation, such as in COP26.
The misconceptions arising from issues of nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear accidents such as in Fukushima and Chernobyl, and radioactive contamination can be addressed by how much nuclear technology actually help countries achieve several of their commitments to the Paris Agreement.
As demonstrated in COP26, the peaceful uses of nuclear technology cannot be excluded from innovative approaches to addressing the world’s most pressing and complex challenge ─ climate change and its harsh impacts.
About the Author
Julius Cesar Trajano is Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
Technology is at the centre of every sphere of our lives and the emerging technologies will play a crucial role in influencing the geopolitical dimensions. The emerging technologies such as Robotics, Fifth Generation (5G) mobile network, Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), Semiconductor, among others, will be significant in the battle for digital supremacy.
The next stage in ASEAN’s COVID-19 war lies in partnerships to establish local vaccine manufacturing centres within member states, to strengthen the region’s “vaccine resilience”.
FOR MANY countries, the timing for re-opening borders and re-energising economies in the COVID-19 era depends crucially on fully vaccinating all (or at least two-thirds) their populations, to achieve a semblance of “herd-immunity”.
The ASEAN region, with its population of 676 million, needs 1.35 billion doses for full inoculation (assuming two doses per person), and has secured commitments to deliver 939 million vaccine doses sufficient to fully vaccinate two-thirds of its population. The question of timing is relevant, however, when one considers that today, only 252 million doses have been successfully delivered based on the UNICEF’s COVID-19 Vaccine Dashboard. This is sufficient for 126 million people, or less than a fifth (19%) of ASEAN population.
Vaccine Hauling: Not ASEAN’s Fight
Adding salt to injury, the current COVID-19 situation in the region has been significantly worsening. Most regional countries are seeing their highest levels of active cases of COVID-19 (Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam) – perhaps too many for their healthcare capacity to handle. With further deaths impending, the need to draw more vaccines, to speed up the process towards “herd-immunity” for the region, was never more urgent.
The obvious challenge is that there are global capacity limitations to vaccine supplies. Today, 4.2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been manufactured and shipped globally, which means inoculating 2.1 billion people or about a quarter of world population (26%). Thus, vaccine supplies are still far off the mark of achieving “herd-immunity” at the global level.
The ideal, for equitable vaccine access, is that all countries globally would have vaccines equivalent to the same share (26%) of their country’s population. Compared to the ideal that ASEAN has vaccines sufficient to inoculate 26% of population, the region is doing poorly as its vaccine supplies are only enough for 19% of its population.
Arguably, higher-income ASEAN countries like Singapore can secure vaccines faster, achieving 57% full vaccination. In contrast, for most ASEAN countries which are of either low- or middle-income status, hauling in more vaccines by bidding higher prices is not the kind of fight they can win.
Intellectual Property Rights: A Fight No One Wins
This reality check logically directs our attention away from the scramble to getting a bigger share of the pie, and towards the task of expanding vaccine availability.
The state of play is that the scientific community has already achieved the stellar feat of discovering vaccines for such a novel pandemic, and getting the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) approval, in less than two years. The baton has now been passed to the private sector to swiftly manufacture these vaccines. This “brick-and-mortar” process of establishing new vaccine manufacturing plants or tailoring existing plants globally for this purpose, is supposed to be way simpler than scientific vaccine discovery.
An apparent hurdle in this rally, lies in intellectual property rights. The World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, requires countries to obtain licences from the vaccine developers before manufacturing their vaccines.
Some countries (led by Brazil, South Africa and India) are pushing against this. They argue, temporarily lifting the application of TRIPS when it comes to approved COVID-19 vaccines, will allow vaccines to be manufactured en masse across all countries. A similar option proposed, is if ASEAN states applied “compulsory licensing” or mandated vaccine developers to give out licences to produce vaccines.
This fight to skirt intellectual property rights, however, is one where no one really wins. This is because either lifting TRIPS or applying “compulsory licensing”, will remove the “carrot” or incentive for vaccine innovation and development.
If pharmaceuticals find that they cannot reap the rewards of their earlier investments in COVID-19 vaccine development, then it makes less business sense for them to continue to invest in COVID-19 vaccines. In the long-run, this could debilitate the global community in adapting to the rapidly-evolving virus (case in point: the Delta variant today).
From Contesting to Cooperating: Public-Private Partnership
What evades the notice of most countries, is that it is possible to work with the system, and to treat private companies as partners rather than rivals. Patches of partnerships between local and international companies are already happening in the ASEAN region, within Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand.
For instance, Indonesia’s Biopharma, the region’s largest state-owned biopharmaceutical plant, is eyeing to produce 250 million doses of Sinovac’s vaccines. Biontech is aiming to setup a Singapore plant to add “hundreds of millions” to its regional manufacturing capacity, while Thailand’s Siam Bioscience is partnering with AstraZeneca to produce 180 million doses a year.
These examples show that states can indeed work with the private sector in expanding the region’s “vaccine resilience”, although this begs a further transformation in local policies and practices, and strong state backing.
For instance, the Philippines previously had no prominent vaccine manufacturers, based on an earlier ASEAN baseline study. Today, local firm Glovax is partnering with Korea’s EuBiologics to produce EuCorVac-19 vaccines.
The Real Enemy: Time
This would not have been possible, without state support by promising to buy 40 million vaccine doses, and in setting-up “Green Lanes” to counteract red tape in securing permits/licences/authorisations. This feat required collaboration among state institutions governing health, food/drugs, trade/industry, investments and science/technology, led by its National Task Force Against COVID-19.
While ideological debate on IP rights may be constructive, the real battle today in the war against COVID-19, is not between states and companies, but against time. The past year and half have shown that the pandemic waits for no one.
The rest of the region would benefit from emulating the examples of Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand in providing strong state support to launch more effective counters to COVID-19, in partnership with the private sector.
About the Author
Jose M.L. Montesclaros is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. This is part of a series.
The emergence of cross-border, web-based digital labour platforms has been among the major transformations in the world of work over the past decade. Through these platforms, tasks are performed online and remotely by freelance workers. Digital labour platforms facilitate the real-time hiring of freelance workers for a plethora of tasks, such as IT programming, language teaching, virtual assistance, marketing, graphic designing, project management, and even research and development. The global trend is that jobs are outsourced on these platforms by businesses located in the global North and performed by freelance workers residing in the global South. This NTS Insight offers a preliminary study on the emergence of web-based, cross-border digital labour and its impact on labour rights and social protection, with a special focus on online freelance workers from Southeast Asia. It reviews the efforts of ASEAN and national governments in the region to promote social protection of these workers and address challenges to rights-based governance for digital labour platforms. This Insight offers possible areas for action by Southeast Asian countries to promote rights and social protection for their workers who are engaged in web-based digital freelance labour.
The Singapore government instituted a set of ‘Circuit Breaker’ (CB) measures in April 2020 to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. These included restricting international travel, closing non-essential businesses, telecommuting, home-based learning, wearing faces masks in public spaces, temperature screening, rigorous contract tracing, and isolating infected and exposed persons. The COVID-19 CB measures helped the government control COVID-19 transmission in Singapore but disrupted economic and social life. This NTS Insight presents data from a representative survey on the social and economic impacts of Singapore’s COVID-19 mitigation measures during the CB period on Singaporean citizens and permanent residents from 7 May to 16 July 2020. Our results show that the top three cited disruptions caused by the CB were all social in nature. However, just under half of all respondents reported some form of direct economic disruption – while up to 80% of respondents expressed concerns about their longer-term financial situation. Finally, our disaggregated analysis shows that some of the negative impacts of the CB period disproportionately impacted potentially vulnerable segments of the population.