NTS-Asia Webinar on Covid-19 and Economic Crisis: Mitigating Impact and Sustaining Development in Asia

Please view the presentation slides from these links:
Click here to view Prof. Miki Honda‘s slides.
Click here to view 
Maj. Gen. (ret’d) Dipankar Banerjee‘s slides.
Click here to view Dr Le Hong Hiep‘s slides.
Click here to view 
Prof. Prijono Tjiptoherijanto ‘s slides.
Click here to view 
Dr Lee Jaehyon‘s slides.

The NTS-Asia Consortium organised a webinar on COVID-19 and Economic Crisis: Mitigating Impact and Sustaining Development in Asia on 5 August 2020. The online event, hosted by the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) Indonesia in partnership with the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS Centre) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, successfully garnered more than 3,200 viewers on Youtube. The webinar featured senior scholars from Asia’s three sub-regions: East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia.

Dr Julia Puspadewi Tijaja, Director of ASEAN Integration Monitoring Directorate of the ASEAN Secretariat, graced the webinar with an insightful keynote speech on ASEAN’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Acknowledging the importance of this webinar in facilitating a sharing of information across regions, Dr Tijaja underscored that the unprecedented challenges triggered by the pandemic are not unique only to Southeast Asia but also a reality in other places. Her presentation on the ASEAN experience therefore can provide some useful points for reflection for other regions.

Dr Tijaja began by highlighting the need to remain vigilant. Although at present ASEAN’s confirmed cases and confirmed deaths only make up of 1.6 percent and 1.1 percent of global numbers respectively, the figures are on the rise. She also pointed out a wide variation in virus containment progress across countries in the region. Some managed to meaningfully slow down the spread of the virus whereas some others still see more and more confirmed cases each day.

On the economic front, the current pandemic is estimated to result in a contraction that ranges between 5.2 percent and 8 percent. She stressed that even if the regional annual economic growth is expected to rebound to 5.2 percent by 2022, it will nowhere reach the pre-COVID-19 growth track. Economic slowdown has affected all sectors and 41 percent of ASEAN workforce. Travel, tourism, accommodation, and hospitality sectors where women are overrepresented are among the hardest hit. In view of these multi-faceted challenges, ASEAN member states have asserted their commitments to keep the regional market open. The regional body has also established ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group on Public Health Emergencies and ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund.

Dr Tijaja closed her speech with the following three optimistic points. First, the pandemic compels us to do things better moving forward. There is a need to look at how we can better address climate concerns, ensure inclusive growth, strengthen social protection, and give health and education the long overdue attention they need. Second, virus knows no boundaries and no country and region can fight against it alone. Cooperation and collective efforts will become more important now and ever. Third, while we do not know when this crisis will end, we know it will end. It is important for ASEAN and for any region not to lose sight of this long-term vision. For ASEAN, this means focusing on community building and regional integration agenda. Existing inequality that has become even more evident, thanks to the pandemic, necessitates inclusive digitalisation efforts, and inclusive, participatory growth and development that leave no one behind.

Prof. Miki Honda from Hosei University, Japan, gave a general overview of COVID-19 situation in Japan. Prof. Honda lamented the government’s late response that has led to business bankruptcies and closures, and insufficient PCR testing among high-risk population. She identified Japan’s vulnerable segments to include single-parent families in lower living standards, service sector workers, temporary workers, migrant workers, sick and injured people, medical experts and service workers and their families, and COVID-19 survivors. Although local and national governments have provided some form of assistance to the vulnerable groups, Prof. Honda opined that these are not sufficient. She highlighted some weaknesses in Japan’s COVID-19 response that included slow bureaucratic system, strained health care and fiscal capacity, and overreliance on people’s voluntary restraint. She closed her presentation by recommending the World Health Organization to provide unified direction and coordinate vaccine development worldwide, and the Japanese government to conduct data-based analysis for accurate information, strengthen policy cooperation with local governments, and enhance medical facility capacity.

Dr Jaehyon Lee from Asan Institute for Policy Studies in South Korea presented a rosier picture. He highlighted that South Korea has managed to contain the virus considerably well, and the economic contraction this year is likely to be much lower compared to other advanced economies. South Korean government has injected stimulus packages to cushion the economic impacts among its population and has laid out Korean New Deal 1 and 2 that iterate its recovery plans. Dr Lee identified temporary workers and migrants as part of the vulnerable groups. Although there were issues with access to information and government’s assistance, migrants in South Korea were given free testing and treatment. In closing, Dr Lee shared his reflections on the need to review regional posture against pandemic, region-wide standard coordination procedures and protection measures, and mutual economic assistance.

Dr Le Hong Hiep from ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore reported a similar victorious story in Vietnam. Dr Le attributed Vietnam’s early virus containment as a key success factor. Although Vietnam was also hit by economic downturn, income loss among population was not particularly serious. He warned, however, that the second wave of infections brought uncertainties that may lead to widening inequality, worsening poverty, and other social problems like increasing unemployment and crime rates.

Prof. Prijono Tjiptoherijanto from University of Indonesia acknowledged the gloom and doom repercussions of the pandemic but chose to focus on the brighter side instead. He pointed out to new jobs being created such as teleconferencing support specialists, online market start-ups, temperature screeners, and protective equipment manufacturers and installers. The pandemic has also resulted in many companies suggesting and even requiring employees to work from home. This has enabled flexible work arrangements that have allowed more time for employees to look after their wellbeing, support the learning and development of their children, and have quality interactions with other family members. Social capital can thus be strengthened during this pandemic period.

Maj. Gen. (ret’d) Dipankar Banerjee from India showed the struggle that the Indian society is currently facing in containing virus spread as daily infection rate exceeds 50,000. He stressed the need for inclusive and sustainable relief and economic stimulus, strengthening of public health infrastructure, and enhancing social protection for livelihood security. He further highlighted the urgency for regional cooperation that will assist countries to build back better.

The five presentations have shown that although countries were generally similar in their containment and support responses, there has been a wide range of variations in terms of progress. Constraints at the national level, as seen in the case of Japan, can hamper effective measures. On the other hand, early re-opening of the economy, presumably on the condition of a successful virus containment as seen in Vietnam and South Korea, seems to be an important factor that averts a country from plunging into deep economic recession. Against this backdrop, Indonesia’s policy to re-open its economy despite continuing COVID-19 cases thus presents an interesting strategy that merits an assessment as to whether this will indeed work. Above all, amidst the tendency for countries to look inward, cooperation among nations cannot be relinquished as it remains critical in this globalised world.