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Delivered by Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

27 April 2021

ESCAP / Suwat Chancharoensuk

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates,

Ladies and gentlemen,

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered unprecedented and synchronized health, social and economic crises, causing severe challenges to hard-won development gains in Asia and the Pacific and beyond.

The 2021 theme study, “Beyond the Pandemic: Building back better from crises in Asia and the Pacific,” brings together cutting-edge research and policy analysis across multiple sectors and sets out a five-point ambitious policy agenda grounded in regional cooperation.

Please allow me to highlight four critical interconnected policy areas:

First, broadening social protection.

The economic impact of the pandemic has laid bare the gaps in social protection across the region.

Informal workers and other vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities, older persons and migrants within countries, have been negatively impacted with many being pushed back into poverty.

The experience across the region is that countries that have invested in social protection have responded better to the pandemic.

Social protection is a wise investment and helps countries better manage crises like COVID-19.

I am pleased to recognize that ESCAP’s member States have launched the Action Plan to Strengthen Regional Cooperation on Social Protection in Asia and the Pacific to address the gaps and help countries emerge from the crisis stronger. 

Second, investing in a sustained recovery.

Governments across Asia and the Pacific deployed trillions of dollars for emergency health responses and to support households and firms with unprecedented fiscal packages and economic stimulus.

These fiscal and monetary policies, along international fiscal assistance, lead us to project a rebound in the region’s GDP growth rates in 2021.

However, building back better requires countries to align stimulus packages with the Sustainable Development Goals, while delivering jobs, income and economic demand.

Creating the required fiscal space for financing the pandemic recovery and the SDGs requires a multi-pronged approach – public expenditure and taxation reform, removal of unnecessary subsidies and implementing innovative bond instruments.

We need to further promote international and regional cooperation to combat tax avoidance and evasion and harmful tax competition, as well as to act on debt relief, which should involve writing down debt in the poorest and most vulnerable countries.

Third, keeping trade and information flowing.

The pandemic has strained the region’s ability to sustain international trade and ensure continuity of transport links. At the same time, it has positively highlighted the criticality of digitalization.

The adoption of ad-hoc restrictive measures and regulations led countries to experience policy uncertainties and temporary border closures and trade barriers.

The pandemic also exposed the yawning digital divide, especially across the Least Developed Countries and Pacific island developing States.

The good news is that coordinated regional and subregional approaches have largely prompted a restart to cross-border connectivity.

This regional cooperation is poised to make supply chains more resilient through various measures such as the Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Cross-Border Paperless Trade, the digitalization of regional transport networks and sustainable freight, and the ongoing implementation of the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway initiative.

Fourth, Protecting environmental health.

COVID-19 is believed to be zoonotic in origin. These types of infectious diseases are on the rise globally as humans, domesticated animals and wild animals come into more frequent contact.

By understanding these dynamics and protecting the health of ecosystems, opportunities for future pandemics can be minimized.

Planetary health is an analytical concept that is used to ensure the health of human civilizations and the natural systems on which they depend.  

Ensuring planetary health requires a series of issues to be addressed, such as the unsustainable use of biodiversity, land-use change, pollution, climate change, as well as weak legislation and enforcement of measures to deal with them.

We need to forge regional cooperation to raise climate ambition, ensure biodiversity and ecosystems measures and better manage the consumption of wild animals and the wildlife trade, and move toward a more circular economy.

The Theme Study proposes a five-point policy agenda for the Asia-Pacific region to build back better from COVID-19.

  1. Enhance regional cooperation – establish or mobilize existing sectoral mechanisms to help governments recover from this pandemic and plan for future crises
  2. Build universal social protection along the life course – Embed social protection in national development agendas and allocate the necessary resources.
  3. Ensure sufficient fiscal space – reorient spending away from non-developmental areas, reform taxation to mitigate inequalities and explore innovative financing instruments.
  4. Promote trade facilitation, digitalization and harmonization, and fully embed social and environmental concerns into global supply chains.
  5. Protect environmental health - adopt a regional agenda for planetary health, and implement the institutional, structural, economic and behavioural changes needed to better manage human and environmental health.

I look forward to your recommendations and guidance to implement the policy agenda into action to build back better in Asia and the Pacific.

Thank you, Chair.

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