24.03.2020

The many faces of COVID-19 in Asia

All realms of public life in Asia will be affected by the most severe pandemic in our lifetimes thus far.

© istock / Soumen Tarafder

The range of impacts on the economic and social systems can seem overwhelming. They are. The many faces of COVID-19 in Asia will stress already strained systems, put disadvantaged groups under even more pressure and will define social justice and international collaboration for years to come. What are the implications of this global pandemic for the truly diverse Asia-Pacific region? 

 

Supply chains and workers

The global lack of demand for consumer goods and the coronavirus threat-induced shutdowns of factories along vulnerable value chains will shake the global trade system. The plummeting oil price and reduced CO2 emissions are among the first indicators of the severe decline in production and the corresponding ripple effects expected for the global economy. Interrupted supply chains will leave many thousands of workers in Bangladesh’s garment sector unemployed. One million garment workers have already lost their job in a country with almost no social security net.

 

Peace and security

In Afghanistan, the coronavirus outbreak is adding an additional layer of complexity to an already fragile peace process and domestic political turmoil. It is also making the insurgent Taliban realize they need health care workers. In the past, the Taliban regularly targeted international aid workers, but they now assure all international health organizations and the World Health Organization of their readiness to cooperate and coordinate with them in combating the spread of the virus. Insurgencies around the world may soon wonder about the point of continued fighting if their physical survival is threatened by the global pandemic. Thus, the repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis can also be felt in the realm of peace and security, with UN Secretary-General António Guterres calling for a global ceasefire to focus on “the true fight of our lives”.

 

Climate change

The rising collaboration in combating climate change may suffer severe setbacks. Although the immediate effects of the pandemic are reducing the emission of greenhouse gases—China’s CO2 emissions dropped by a quarter after Chinese New Year, we also see widening fault lines between nation States in crises. The recovery efforts after the expected global recession tend to put international long-term collaboration at formidable risk. On the other hand, the unprecedented challenges that lie ahead and the momentum they create might also open up opportunities for meaningful action. 

 

Regional cooperation and geopolitics

Almost all countries in Asia have shut their borders, cut flight connections, revoked visas and now hibernate in various levels of self-isolation. At the same time, national responses are not sufficient to tackle the global crisis. The fast-spreading virus demonstrates the interdependence of the United States, China and other major economies. The need for more and better coordination and multilateral action might be spurred. Distance can create closeness. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for instance, quickly convened the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation leaders in a video call to discuss how to address the crisis together. China is helping Italy with supplies and medical staff. It remains to be seen, though, how the region and ASEAN will adapt to the disruptions in supply chains and the potentially more decoupling, deglobalization and diversification. Do we see a revival of regional cooperation or do we, on the opposite, witness the return of each-nation-on-its-own policies? What are the geopolitical changes that could be triggered or exacerbated by this global pandemic?

 

Gender justice

As health and care workers, women are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Will the currently visible value of care work survive into the post-pandemic world? Women in Asia are expected to be hit the hardest by the crisis because they do the most precarious low-paid jobs. House helpers and nannies have lost their jobs, and many of those services are no longer needed. Additionally, women continue to carry the main burden of unpaid care work, which has increased due to school closures. Women are more vulnerable regarding financial and social protection. Many also lack opportunities and access to equipment and skills that would enable them to thrive despite the crisis.

 

Asia is different

Advisories about social distancing and work from home in the Global North fall flat in view of the realities of most people in Asia, particularly in the Global South. Billions of people work informally, live in densely populated settlements, use crowded public transport or do not have the kind of job that enables remote work. Informal and platform workers have lost their income and are left without social protection, putting them and their societies at risk. The digital divide could exacerbate the vulnerabilities of those who are already left behind.

 

Mirco Günther serves as Managing Director of the Singapore-based FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia (FES ORCA).

Kai Dittmann works as Program Manager with FES ORCA, where he is leading the regional CLS+ and trade union programs.

Lea Goelnitz works as Program Manager with FES ORCA and is heading the regional feminism as well as women and the future of work programs.

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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