Ladies and Gentlemen, a very good morning to everyone.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every country and region in the world; inflicting significant damage on the health, economic, and social fabrics of our nations. Since the start of the outbreak early this year, COVID-19 has spread rapidly across the world, and more than 39 million cases and 1 million deaths have been reported globally. While ASEAN countries were one of the first to be affected by the coronavirus, most of our Governments have acted swiftly to contain and control the outbreak. At the regional level, ASEAN is prepared through the various mechanisms that were established before the pandemic. Notwithstanding this, ASEAN countries could not escape the health, social and economic impact from COVID-19.
Let me talk about the impact of COVID-19 on our healthcare systems.
2. The most immediate impact was felt first and foremost by our healthcare systems. When case numbers rose, many hospitals in the region were placed under unprecedented stress, and healthcare providers on the frontline, were put at the vulnerable frontline of battling the coronavirus in order to save lives. An overburdened healthcare system will inevitably lead to patients succumbing to the disease. COVID-19 has therefore demonstrated the critical importance of investing in health security and strengthening of healthcare systems. We also needed to be agile to adapt our healthcare policies, infrastructure and systems quickly in this changing situation.
3. In Singapore, to ensure sufficient hospital capacity to care for COVID-19 patients, our public hospitals postponed non-urgent elective procedures, discharged medically stable long-stayers to step-down facilities, as well as repurposed and converted existing wards into isolation rooms. A close public-private partnership has also enabled us to quickly expand our medical capacity by setting up community care facilities to care for patients with mild symptoms or those who are on a recovery path and no longer require extensive medical support. In this way, we were able to deploy our medical resources optimally to prevent our healthcare system from being overwhelmed.
4. Many ASEAN countries have faced similar challenges. COVID-19 had therefore underscored the importance of strengthening health systems and accelerating progress towards universal health coverage. We should reframe the way we think about spending on health – not just as costs, but as investments. Investment in the health of our people, our society, and our economy. Establishing a strong and resilient health system with an emphasis on strengthening public health capabilities can help countries meet the challenges of health security risks and enhance preparedness of the region towards future public health emergencies. Pandemics may actually happen more frequently and one more devastating than COVID-19 is a genuine possibility.
Let me next talk about the impact of COVID-19 on our economy and society.
5. COVID-19 is more than just a public health crisis. To contain the spread of COVID-19, countries started going into lockdowns and enacted temporary restrictions on cross-border travel and movement. As a result, there were severe disruptions to global economic activity which has led to both demand- and supply-side shocks to the ASEAN economy. Its impact has been broad and significant, affecting different sectors of the economy to varying degrees. Notably, the air transport and tourism sectors have been the hardest hit.
6. Countries also bear economic losses unevenly. For example, supply chain disruptions due to lockdowns and quarantine measures affect countries that are dependent on merchandise trade, such as Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand. Travel bans and temporary closure of public spaces have weighed on services, especially tourism. Meanwhile, measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 have affected the labour market, and unemployment rates are expected to rise as a result. Given the situation, it is almost certain that the regional economy will face a recession this year.
7. The economic impacts and effects of COVID-19 have caused devastating impacts on businesses and livelihoods. As such, many Governments have rolled out policies and fiscal stimulus packages to cushion the shocks of COVID-19 on their respective economies, and help affected businesses and households. However, the large informal economy and unbanked populations in many ASEAN countries also means that the distribution of relief aid will not be an easy task. COVID-19 have therefore exposed the vulnerable in the community and threatened to widen the income inequality gap among our populations. Governments have to face the difficult challenges of saving lives and livelihoods. Without a viable, effective vaccine, there is no clear exit strategy from this pandemic. The fiscal impact on governments in tackling this prolonged crisis will also have implications on the longer term investments needed for regional development.
How do we overcome the COVID-19 crisis?
8. Let me share 5 areas I think in which ASEAN can work together to overcome this COVID-19 Crisis:
First, ASEAN solidarity
9. COVID-19 has shown that doctrine of ASEAN solidarity was reflected in our actual behaviour. If you recall, in the early days of the pandemic, ASEAN came together to share information about the new coronavirus and best practices. There are also many examples I can think of, where ASEAN countries supported each other and worked together to tackle the pandemic. For instance, through donations of test kits, PCR machines, personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators between countries; as well as the mutual assistance rendered, such as Singapore’s efforts to look after Malaysian workers stranded here in Singapore due to the imposition of the Movement Control Order, and Malaysia’s help in repatriating Singaporeans stranded overseas. All these have shown the solidarity of our people to help one another in times of crisis.
Second, A robust healthcare system to support re-opening efforts
10. The first step to ASEAN recovery will be to manage and contain the current outbreak situation in our region and prevent subsequent waves of infection. This can be done by expanding testing capacity to diagnose cases early, speeding up contact tracing to identify and isolate close contacts of infected persons, and ensuring sufficient healthcare capacity to deal with the potential surge of COVID-19 cases that surely must be expected as economies gradually re-open. While re-starting travel in our region is vital to ASEAN’s economic recovery, it should only be done in a safe and calibrated manner in order to manage the risks of importation of cases and of starting new waves of infection. If such risks materialise, both lives and livelihoods will be lost.
Third, Maintain trade flow and keeping supply chains connected
11. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of global value chains by disrupting cross-border trade and transport. A further challenge is the uncertainty of how long countries’ lockdown measures will last, when an effective vaccine will be available, and the prospects for better diagnostics and treatment, as well as the risk from “second waves” of infections being seen around the world. Within ASEAN, countries are also currently at different stages of the pandemic. The economic consequences of COVID-19 will likely linger long after the virus has been contained.
12. So, against this backdrop, there is a clear need to keep trade flowing, both to ensure the supply of essential goods and services, and to send a signal of confidence for the global economy. Trade is essential to save both lives and livelihoods. However, no single country can keep trade flowing alone, or international supply chains functioning by itself. Countries must work together to uphold a rules-based international trading system and maintain supply chain connectivity. ASEAN needs to show the world that we are open for business.
13. Building on this principle, our Leaders adopted the Hanoi Plan of Action on Strengthening ASEAN Economic Cooperation and Supply Chain Connectivity at the 36th ASEAN Summit in June 2020. Under the Plan, Singapore is partnering ASEAN to streamline non-tariff measures (NTM), starting with those imposed on essential goods such as food and medical supplies. This will reduce impediments to the flow of these items and strengthen supply chain connectivity.
Fourth, Encouraging technology adoption and digitalisation
14. COVID-19 has also shown us the importance of technology in our everyday lives, and accelerated digitalisation. Even the conference today is digital. In the wake of the pandemic, with the temporary closures of many public spaces and retail outlets, and companies shifting to remote work arrangements, digital technologies moved quickly from a strategic priority to an operational imperative – both to accommodate remote workers and to serve consumers as they moved to e-commerce channels. The lockdowns and quarantine measures have caused sharp increases in the adoption of digital channels across the world, especially for purchase of essential items.
15. As our global economy shifts to embrace and accommodate technology and digital solutions, ASEAN too has to focus on inclusive digitalisation efforts for the region. ASEAN countries need to bridge the digital divide by accelerating investments in ICT infrastructure, ensuring affordable internet access, and improving digital literacy in our people. Governments need to create the legal and regulatory basis for the digital economy and enable digitised public services to citizens and businesses alike.
16. We can also use innovative technologies to combat the pandemic. This includes contact tracing and smart surveillance, as well as decision-making tools for pandemic management. For example, here in Singapore, we have developed an app, called TraceTogether, which uses Bluetooth signals to record those who have been in close contact with one another. We have made it an open source project, so that fellow ASEAN countries and others who want to use or adapt it can do so freely. We have developed other tech solutions too, like SafeEntry, which records people entering and exiting public places. These technologies allow us to identify the close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases much more quickly and quarantine them promptly.
Fifth, Vaccine multilateralism
17. A safe and effective vaccine will be critical to overcoming the pandemic and getting our lives back to normal. ASEAN should work together as a region to enhance cooperation with external partners and multilateral organisations, such as the World Health Organisation, to procure an equitable, steady and affordable supply of treatments and vaccines when these are developed and available. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that multilateral cooperation is key to responding effectively to global challenges. In this regard, Singapore supports the notion of vaccine multilateralism. No one can be safe unless everyone is safe. ASEAN should build upon the Declaration on ASEAN Vaccine Security and Self-Reliance adopted at the 35th ASEAN Summit last year and explore working together to facilitate and promote cooperation to produce and distribute vaccines in the region.
18. To conclude ladies and gentlemen, ASEAN countries must work collaboratively to overcome the many challenges in the face of the COVID-19 storm. There is no place for nationalism or protectionism. Rather, we need to embrace regionalism and multilateralism, as well as proactively engage our global partners to achieve common goals and realise the ASEAN Community Vision.
19. We are currently at a crossroad. How ASEAN countries respond to this crisis will determine whether ASEAN forges ahead of the competition or falls behind. The way forward for ASEAN to thrive and stay relevant in the rapidly changing world order is to stay united and resilient by strengthening the ASEAN centrality and unity. In the recovery process, opportunities will present for us to build back better. This is the way to be a safe and prosperous region, and a beacon of hope for multilateralism in these trying times.
20. Thank you and have a good conference.
WHO COVID-19 Situation Report (17 October 2020).