Transformational potential of COVID-19 recovery in Asia-Pacific


Omar Amach

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction - Regional Office for Asia and Pacific
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Photo by Emily Rusch on Unsplash

BANGKOK - The COVID-19 pandemic poses unique challenges in response and recovery. Governments are trying to manage the shock in the face of existing societal threats like poverty and inequality. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 recovery process has the potential to be a transformational event for many countries.  The road to recovery offers countries the opportunity to improve their overall long-term sustainability and resilience, if planning starts now. 

“Once the immediate health crisis is over, countries should put into place measures to avoid going back to  negative “business-as-usual” practices that contribute to carbon emissions, degrade the environment and increase disaster risk,” said Ms Loretta Hieber Girardet, Chief for the Asia-Pacific region at the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR)

Ms Hieber Girardet was helping set the scene to an audience of 925 people from 74 countries who joined an online webinar co-organized by UNDRR on the topic of “opportunities for resilient recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar was organized in collaboration with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the Secretariat of the International Recovery Platform (IRP).

Months into the crisis, it is clear that the impact of the pandemic is being felt most acutely on the most vulnerable, who often lack social protection. ESCAP estimates that over60 percent of the Asia-Pacific population lacks access to social protection, as do the 70 percent of workers in the informal sector.

“There is a growing body of regional evidence showing that investments in the social sector before a disaster strikes can serve as a critical determinant of how communities bounce back,” according to Ms. Tiziana Bonapace, Director of the Information and Communications Technology and Disaster Risk Reduction Division at ESCAP.

These include investments in social protection, information technology infrastructure, data on vulnerable groups, and the digitization of cash transfers.

Ms. Bonapace cited the example of the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, where UN agencies were able to efficiently reach an extra 100,000 households with cash transfers thanks to an earlier expansion of the national cash transfer programme by the government.

Indeed, past disasters have the potential to provide policymakers with lessons that could be useful in the context of recovery from COVID-19.

“Recovery should start once deaths reach a plateau, which will differ by country. However, the planning for recovery can start now during the response phase,” said Dr William Sabandar, President Director of Jakarta’s Mass Rapid Transit and former Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of ASEAN for the recovery of Myanmar from Cyclone Nargis.

According to Dr Sabandar, governments should ensure four key elements are in place to expedite recovery: inspirational leadership, a strong governance and coordination mechanism, data and transparency, and people-centred plans.

In the context of Small Island Developing States, where governance mechanisms may be weak, recovery can be supported by capacity-building measures, such as improving public financial management systems.

Also, in far flung islands, where government reach is limited, rural communities depend heavily on small businesses for access to goods and services. Therefore prioritizing recovery support to these businesses is critical:

“Ultimately for those in remote rural communities, these small firms are who they need to fall back on to support their recovery efforts” to meet the requirements of well-meaning donors and development partners, said Mr Mosese Sikivou, the Regional Coordinator for the Pacific Resilience Programme (PREP) at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

Recovery efforts can be an opportunity to meet long-term objectives in the areas of decarbonization, resilience building and sustainable development.

“In the selection of the projects that go into recovery packages, we need to check that they deliver on what is needed in the short term, and also address long term objectives,” said Dr Stéphane Hallegatte, a Lead Economist with the World Bank.

Specifically, he cited large-scale public works programmes which can address immediate employment needs for the most vulnerable workers while also helping improve agricultural productivity and reducing disaster risks.

Examples include projects focused on forestry, landscape restoration, watershed management, or urban infrastructure.

To aid countries in the selection process, the World Bank recently launched a 30-question checklist to help decision-makers screen potential projects.

There is also a regional dimension that can be equally powerful in expediting resilient recovery of individual countries.

Citing lessons from past disasters and crises, including the 1998 and 2008 financial crises, Dr Parag Khanna, who is the founder of FutureMap, a strategic advisory firm and a best-selling author of books on global and regional affairs, said:

“The further Asian countries go in breaking down borders and fighting-off protectionist measures, the more they will be able to become more self-reliant and self-sufficient as a region.”

He noted that the current pandemic demonstrated to many countries the vulnerability of their supply chains and he expects many will “seek to build resilience in terms of essential goods and commodities.” In this context, digitization and regional connectivity can both enhance regional integration.

A full recording of the webinar can be accessed here

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