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What solutions from Asia-Pacific can use Central Asian countries to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Many countries are looking for the most effective approaches in the fight against coronavirus and trying to overcome the economic crisis. UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP Ms. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana discusses the best practices of Asia-Pacific countries, that can be used in Central Asia, and other issues in an exclusive interview for CABAR.asia

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The COVID-19 pandemic and continuing trade uncertainties are having far-reaching economic and social consequences. Economic growth in the region is also expected to sharply decline in 2020. Central Asian countries are marked in “Economic and Social survey of Asia and the Pacific 2020” as landlocked developing countries. What risks and uncertainties to the economic outlook can we discuss? What economic policy considerations for CA can be done?

Ms. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana: Economic performance in Central Asia is expected to deteriorate in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lower-than-expected oil prices and sluggish external demand for commodities will weaken commodity exporters, with consequent impacts of budget shortfalls, balance of payment challenges and pressure on currencies. In addition, several countries in the subregion may also see a decline in remittance inflows from oil-exporting countries. Economic policies should prioritize mobilization of resources to stop the spread of the pandemic as well as rapidly build capacity to curb the outbreak and cure infected people. This requires targeted fiscal and monetary easing to support health responders, subsidize medical treatment for COVID-19, and monitor and control further spread. Meanwhile, in order to avoid economic collapse, accommodative fiscal and monetary policies are needed to support affected businesses and households and to secure financial stability. These can include targeted tax cuts, cash transfers, and credit and liquidity provision.

How do policy and market failures constrain stakeholders from moving along the sustainable path?

The three major stakeholders in our economy – Governments, businesses and consumers – are facing different but complementary challenges. First, faced with competing priorities, governments put into place fragmented policies to boost short-term economic growth over well-balanced cross-cutting policy actions that promote sustainable development. Second, conflicting incentives make government actions towards decarbonization insufficient. Third, mispricing of carbon leads to overuse of fossil fuels. While carbon pricing has become more widespread in the region over the past decade, current rates and coverage are far below what is required for a significant shift towards a greener, low-carbon economy. Fourth, current business regulations fall short in measuring a company’s carbon footprint. Most countries do not have a consistent standard to guide sustainable investment. Fifth, current consumption patterns of an increasingly wealthy population are pushing planetary boundaries as consumers are unaware of the impact of their consumption on the environment. Finally, many resources are not used in an efficient manner, which has led to unnecessary waste and underutilization of resources.

What stakeholders do you know in a path to build a sustainable future and how to raise ambitions for it?

Our research, just published in the Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2020, identifies the key stakeholders as Governments, businesses, and consumers. These stakeholders need to act together to create a virtuous cycle in which sustainable lifestyles, innovative business models and forward-looking policies support and reinforce each other in the transition towards a greener, more equitable future. To do this, they need to consider the environmental impacts linked to their actions such as increased release of greenhouse gases (GHG) and the waste generated. This should be done on both consumption and production side. In this pursuit, governments should support the change in consumer and production behaviour by regulations, taxes and incentives, and educating consumers to make more sustainable lifestyle choices.

How can we connect COVID-19 pandemic to ecology problems and climate change in Central Asia?

The occurrence of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19, that cross over from the wild to human populations are increasing and highlight how human health and animal health are interdependent and bound to the health of the ecosystems in which they exist.

The COVID-19 pandemic is closely linked therefore with the lack of protection of biodiversity and natural ecosystems, leading to closer contacts between the wild and human populations. The current pandemic is also closely rooted in wildlife trade and to the lack of food safety in the global food chains.

Climate change puts more people at risk for pandemics, as habitat loss due to climate is bringing animals that can transmit diseases in contact with humans more often and climate change has an effect on spreading patterns of airborne infectious diseases. The current pandemic also seems to worsen with high levels of air pollution.

Recent studies are highlighting the increasing vulnerability of Central Asia to biodiversity loss and climate change and therefore the need to look closely on how a response of the region to the COVID-19 crisis should factor in environmental considerations.

However, on a positive note, we have also seen the slowdown of economic activities in Asia and the Pacific giving the environment breathing space. It has reduced demand for oil and gas, and at the same time also resulted in substantive reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide and reduced air pollution. The outbreak has further provided opportunities to promote more resilient and sustainable practices. 

What actions are expected from different sections of society to mobilizing the SDGs?

As we enter the decade that culminates in the deadline for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it has become clear that our efforts so far have not been sufficient. In September 2019, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on all sections of society to mobilize for a Decade of Action on three levels: local, people, and global. Governments are supposed to take the lead at local level, while youth, civil society, the media, the private sector, unions, academia and other stakeholders constitute the people level. Of course, cross-border cooperation and cooperation across countries serves the global level.

Resource: “The Impact and Policy Responses for COVID-19 in Asia and the Pacific 2020”

In order to fight climate change, the Asia-Pacific region should take actions across these three levels. The 2020 Survey report highlights the following role for each level:

  • Governments should prioritize sustainability and decarbonize their economies (local action);
  • Businesses should internalize the externalities of their business conducts and consumers should be more mindful of their lifestyles (people action); and
  • Countries should enhance global and regional cooperation towards more ambitious solutions (global action).

What solutions and best practices from Asia-Pacific can use Central Asian countries to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?

While COVID-19 is still rapidly evolving, some East Asian countries are outperformers in controlling the pandemic. Some good practices in East Asian countries include:

  • First, early preparedness for a new disease outbreak. The 2003 SARS outbreak and frequent waves of dengue fever led to improved public health emergency preparedness in East Asian countries.
  • Second, early action is crucial to containment such as quarantines and curtailing travel.
  • Third, encourage the public to take precautions actions, such as wearing masks, during the outbreak.
  • Fourth, harness new technologies to monitor and limit the spread of the disease.

In particular, China and the Republic of Korea have used smartphones to log people’s movements to slow the spread. Lastly, increase screening for symptoms as people move in public areas. Many enterprises have started to screen workers’ body temperature as they enter the workplace.

What regional mechanisms can be used to create a sustainable future in Central Asia?

Recovery and rebuilding of lives in the aftermath of this pandemic will depend on the strengths of regional cooperation and solidarity. 
One of the mechanisms which ESCAP is proposing to member States is the establishment of a regional public health emergency fund which could help mobilize financial resources and provide targeted support. This regional fund could also pool subregional resources for rapid response teams of doctors and specialists as well as provide testing kits and other equipment. It could further ensure sharing of knowledge on quarantine and technologies. The UN, including ESCAP, could be a suitable platform to manage such a fund and bring stakeholders together including member States, regional intergovernmental organizations, multilateral development banks, the private sector, philanthropies, and civil society.

When it comes to wider sustainable development activities, the ESCAP Subregional Office for North and Central Asia (SONCA) coordinates numerous activities in this subregion which provides strong support to countries in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development  

For example, regional and subregional dialogue of member States and multi-stakeholders, organized by ESCAP annually in the form of the Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) and North and Central Asia Multi-Stakeholder Forum, provide opportunities for monitoring the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and strengthening regional cooperation.

ESCAP jointly with UNECE also supports the United Nations Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA). ESCAP closely cooperates with major subregional organizations including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Eurasian Economic Commission, the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program, the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) and others. All these and many other mechanisms are used by ESCAP for assistance to Central Asian member states in their efforts to implement Sustainable Development Goals.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP.

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.


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