Combating Covid-19 and ensuring no-one is left behind

If the world wants to beat back the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure no one is left behind in the recovery, two issues thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic need attention: digitalisation and regional cooperation.

notice about the shortage of Covid-19 vaccine supplies India
Health workers attach a notice about the shortage of Covid-19 vaccine supplies at a vaccination centre in Mumbai, India. Image: Reuters/ Francis Mascarenhas

Ensuring the digital transformation reaches all in Asia Pacific is one of the greatest challenges we face. Even before Covid-19, the digital revolution was transforming how people and businesses work. As the pandemic unfolded, the accelerated adoption of digital technologies helped governments, education, private enterprise and people keep activities going amid social distancing, lockdowns and other containment measures. High-speed internet connectivity and financial technology hold immense promise for deepening financial inclusion, and keeping local economies alive, even in times of crisis.

Yet many poor households, women and vulnerable groups have been unable to afford or access the benefits of digitalisation. Digital divides within and between countries in the region threaten to exacerbate existing gaps in economic and social development. We need more equitable access to digital technologies to drive innovation and create new business models.

Regional cooperation must refocus on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Regional cooperation plays a critical role in managing the transition out of the current crisis, and a renewed focus on environmental and social dimensions of cooperation is essential. Working together can also help countries achieve digital transformation for all, including through joint efforts to develop and expand digital infrastructure, and legal and regulatory reforms that make these services more accessible.

The pandemic has exposed the inadequacy of the region’s health, education and social protection systems, making life even more difficult for the poorest and socially excluded, and deepening inequalities within communities and countries, particularly for women.

The crisis has shown the value of building universal social protection systems for all members of society — from infancy to old age — which can be bolstered to provide additional relief in times of crisis. There have also been huge disparities in the ability of countries to insulate themselves from the pandemic and roll out vaccines. This is widening development gaps. A renewed focus on people, their well-being and capabilities is needed through regional cooperation.

In recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, environmental sustainability needs to become much more central to economic, social and global value chain integration efforts. By building low-carbon economies, including through a new focus on industry and tourism sectors to generate green jobs, we can help create a more resilient region. While governments recognise the potential to pursue more environmentally sustainable development as part of recovery, much more needs to be done if we are to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and protect our planet’s natural capital and biodiversity. 

Meeting the needs of people and planet

These issues, highlighted in a recent joint report by our three organisations, warrant greater emphasis as countries meet this week to review implementation of the SDGs at the United Nations High-level Political Forum. Policymakers have necessarily focused on containing the pandemic and meeting peoples’ immediate needs. Tangible action on the multiple interconnected dimensions of the SDGs poses difficult policy and fiscal choices.

Regional collaboration around financing can help countries raise and expand resources to meet the SDGs. Key priorities include cooperation on tax, through common standards, and efforts to address tax havens and avoidance. In addition, countries in the region can work together to design incentives to align private investment with the SDGs and expand the use of sustainability-focused instruments that tap regional and global capital markets.

Another form of international cooperation is worth noting. Governments, multilateral organisations, development banks, philanthropic organisations and the private sector have joined forces in unprecedented efforts to fight the pandemic, such as through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative. Science, technology and innovation enabled by such partnerships will continue to drive countries’ efforts to recover and build resilience.

Today, what begins as highly local can soon become a global phenomenon. A reinvigorated multilateralism can and must respond faster to take on new challenges and expand provision of public goods. Together, our organisations will seek to nurture such cooperation to achieve the SDGs.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the Executive Secretary, Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Kanni Wignaraja is the Assistant Secretary-General, United Nations Development Programme. Bambang Susantono is the Vice-President, Asian Development Bank. 

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