In Asia and the Pacific, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a severe decline in human development, with the poorest and socially excluded hit the hardest. Millions of jobs and livelihoods have been destroyed, equivalent to a loss of 140 million full-time jobs. While the region was already off-track to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, the pandemic has provided a further significant setback. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that some 78 million people in the region were pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020.

The pandemic has also exposed the region’s pre-existing social, economic, and environmental vulnerabilities. These include poverty, limited social safety nets, weak health systems, social exclusion, and structural gender inequality. 

For example, UN Women has estimated that more than four out of five women in the region who lost their jobs during the pandemic did not receive unemployment benefits or other government support. During the pandemic, women and girls have suffered increased risk of domestic violence and risk of trafficking. Healthcare workers are predominantly women and therefore more exposed to the COVID-19 infection.

Developing Asia is projected to grow by 7.3% in 2021, higher than in recent years due to the comparison with a weak 2020. Growth is expected to moderate to 5.3% in 2022. However, the growth trend will not be uniform across the region. Without concerted and collaborative policy actions, there is a real risk of a “K-shaped” recovery in which some groups or countries recover much faster than others. In addition to the risk of vulnerable groups within countries being left behind, there is now a heightened risk of vulnerable countries being left behind.

Policymakers have understandably focused on containing the virus and meeting immediate health and economic needs. Between March 2020 and January 2021, developing countries in the region deployed COVID-19 health response and relief measures for households and firms worth an estimated $1.8 trillion.

ADB has played its part with a $20 billion package announced in April 2020 to help its developing member countries fight the pandemic. We strongly believe that high vaccination coverage is critical to protect the health of citizens in Asia and the Pacific and to restore economic activity to pre-pandemic levels. So we followed up our COVID-19 package with the announcement in December of our $9 billion Asia Pacific Vaccine Access Facility to ensure our developing member countries get safe and equitable access to vaccines at affordable prices.

However, while governments realize the urgency for more environmentally sustainable development in the recovery from COVID-19, action in this respect has been limited. The urgent challenge is to ensure that the recovery encompasses all countries and peoples and is consistent with the SDGs so that no one is left behind. Developing Asia must plan its recovery to build resilience for the long haul. Governments need to lay the foundation for a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable future.

ADB’s support focuses on a recovery that reorients economies toward a more green and low-carbon trajectory; addresses underlying vulnerabilities; strengthens resilience and inclusiveness. We do this through both our financial and knowledge support.

As part of this, ADB has committed to delivering $80 billion cumulatively in climate finance between 2019 and 2030. We will also ensure that by 2030 at least 75% of our projects address climate change mitigation and adaptation. 

Our operations are also introducing pandemic response into project designs. For example, a proposed integrated urban flood management project in Chennai, India, will help prevent infection and control COVID-19 by enhancing water, sanitation, and hygiene at schools and community health centers. It will also help in disease surveillance, as well as community preparedness and response capacity to deal with both pandemics and floods.

A new joint report by ADB, the United Nations Development Programme, and the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific considers two areas of particular promise that can help create the foundation for resilient, inclusive, and sustainable development pathways. These are digitalization and regional cooperation.

As the report points out, even before the pandemic, the digital revolution was transforming how people and businesses work. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies and sped up the digital transformation. The use of digital technology has helped governments, businesses, and people manage pandemic responses, and kept some economic activity going in the face of social distancing and other containment measures.

Countries with better information and communications technology infrastructure have been more successful in cushioning the economic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic by shifting more economic activity online.

In many countries, teaching and working moved online; millions of students and workers connected through online platforms. Schools were closed to varying degrees across developing Asia—in a quarter of the region’s economies, schools were closed for 200–300 days, and in another fifth for a year or more. Only a handful of economies managed to keep schools open continuously.

However, many poor and vulnerable groups have been unable to afford or access the needed connections. Persistent and large digital divides within and between countries of the region risk amplifying gaps in economic and social development. According to a recent ADB economic report, improvement in internet access per population from the emerging-market average (53%) to the advanced-economy average (88%) helps cut the former’s growth deceleration by half in the pandemic. Countries need to overcome various barriers to achieve more equitable digitalization.

Regional cooperation can help in this respect, enabling countries to develop more universal and accessible digital infrastructure, including through legal and regulatory reforms. In addition, as the report makes clear, regional cooperation must support countries to build greater resilience. These measures will be vital to mitigate the threat of an uneven economic recovery and prepare countries to deal with future shocks.

The severe economic repercussions of the pandemic have shown the value of quality social protection systems in providing emergency aid. Countries in the region spend just 4.9% of gross domestic product on social protection (excluding health), a figure that compares unfavorably with other regions. Governments need to build more effective, universal social protection systems that address needs of all ages and can be relied upon in times of crisis. Regional action can help countries raise additional financing to meet their development needs through better cooperation on tax, domestic resource mobilization, and greater financial stability and resilience.

Last, it is vital to make trade and value chains more resilient and sustainable and create new opportunities for less developed and more vulnerable countries to be part of these systems, including by harnessing the digital economy. Regional cooperation on connectivity is critical to helping overcome digital divides in the region. 

Despite many challenges, there has been unprecedented collaboration among governments and bilateral and multilateral donors as well as development banks, philanthropic organizations, and the private sector to fight the pandemic. Science, technology, and innovation enabled by these partnerships have played a critical role and will continue to drive countries’ efforts to recover and build resilience. There is therefore great potential for better collaboration between the private and public sectors and the possibility of new models for provisioning regional and global public goods.

Author

  • Susantono, Bambang
    Susantono, Bambang
    Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development
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