Keeping trade flowing while containing Covid-19 regionally is key to Asean's recovery: Koh Poh Koon

SINGAPORE – There is a clear need to keep global trade flowing to ensure the supply of essential goods and services in order to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic, said Senior Minister of State for Health Koh Poh Koon on Wednesday (Oct 21).

Dr Koh said that Asean needs to work together “to show the world that we are open for business”, and emphasised that countries must cooperate to uphold a rules-based global trading system and maintain supply chain connectivity in these difficult times.

Speaking during the opening of the three-day virtual 35th Asean Roundtable, themed The Covid-19 Crisis: Impact On Asean And The Way Forward, Dr Koh also upheld factors like digitalisation and vaccine multilateralism as ways for the regional bloc to emerge from the crisis.

He said pandemic-induced lockdowns and travel restrictions have caused severe disruptions to global economic activity, with the air transport and tourism sectors hit the hardest.

Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of global value chains by disrupting cross-border trade and transport, he said.

There are further uncertainties in how long countries’ lockdown measures will last, when an effective vaccine will be available, and the risk of second waves of infections being seen globally.

“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,” he said.

In his speech, Dr Koh also said that with temporary closure of retail outlets and companies shifting to remote work arrangements, Covid-19 has pushed digitalisation “from a strategic priority to an operational imperative”. Asean, too, has to focus on regional inclusive digitalisation efforts, he said.

“Asean countries need to bridge the digital divide by accelerating investments in ICT (information and communications technology) infrastructure, ensuring affordable Internet access, and improving digital literacy in our people,” he said, adding that governments need to create the legal framework for the digital economy and digitalise public services.

Innovative technologies can also be used for contact tracing and smart surveillance, and decision-making for pandemic management, said Dr Koh, citing Singapore’s TraceTogether app. “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.”

Dr Koh said that Asean should work 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”.

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“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,” he said.

He called for Asean to build upon the Declaration on Asean Vaccine Security and Self-Reliance adopted at the 35th Asean Summit last year, and work together to produce and distribute vaccines in the region.

Dr Koh also highlighted the need for Asean to remain united through this crisis. This solidarity was evident, with the region coming together to share information in the early days of the pandemic, along with donations of test kits and personal protective equipment between countries.

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He cited Singapore’s efforts in looking after Malaysian workers who were stranded here because of the imposition of the Movement Control Order, and Malaysia’s help in repatriating Singaporeans stranded overseas.

The first step to Asean’s recovery is in managing and containing the outbreak regionally and preventing subsequent waves of infection, said Dr Koh.

“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 reopen,” he said.

In his speech, Dr Koh said that Covid-19 has shown the importance of strengthening healthcare systems, so that countries can meet the challenges of future public health crises.

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“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,” he said.

Dr Koh said that Asean is at a crossroads, and how it responds to the Covid-19 crisis will determine whether the regional organisation forges ahead of the competition or falls behind.

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