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.

Photo: istock / Soumen Tarafder

The range of impacts on the fabric of 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 the 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 COVID-19 induced shutdowns of factories along vulnerable value chains 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 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 adds an additional layer of complexity to an already fragile peace process and domestic political turmoil. It also makes the insurgent Taliban realize they need health care workers. While in the past the Taliban did regularly target international aid workers, they now assure all international health organizations and the WHO of their readiness to cooperate and coordinate with them in combating the disease. Insurgencies all around the world might wonder about the point of continued fighting if their physical survival is threatened by a global pandemic. And so the repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis are also 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 might suffer severe blowbacks. While the immediate effects of the pandemic are reducing the emissions of Greenhouse gases – China’s CO2 emissions dropped by a quarter after Chinese New Year – we also see the widening fault lines between nation states in crises. And the recovery efforts after a global recession put international long-term collaboration at a formidable risk. On the other hand, the unprecedented challenges that lie ahead and momentum they create might also open up opportunities for meaningful action. 


Regional cooperation and geopolitics

Almost all countries in Asia shut their borders, cut flight connections, revoked visas and now hibernate in various levels of self-isolation. At the same time, national responses won’t suffice to tackle a 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. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for instance, quickly convened SAARC (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 adapt to disruptions in supply chains and potentially more de-coupling, de-globalization 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 at the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19. It remains to be seen if the currently visible value of care work survives into the post-pandemic world. Women in Asia are expected to be hit the hardest by the crisis. They do the most precarious low-paid jobs. Helpers and nannies are let go and many services are no longer needed. Additionally, they continue to carry the main burden of unpaid care work, which increases through e.g. 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 home office 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 jobs that enable remote work. Informal and platform workers lose 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.


FES Asia Corona Brief

This blog series will tell from the current struggles in Asia and discuss the fundamental changes they might induce. FES experts and partners in 16 different countries will give you an update two to three times a week providing you with insights from the region. Asia-Pacific contains multitudes: From administrations that might hope to benefit from the crisis, over trade unions and NGOs organizing response efforts to international institutions that already struggle to coordinate in the best of times. 

The future of work, the economy of tomorrow and the geopolitical dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region are likely to change for billions of people. FES in Asia will share insights from the ground and analysis from above. 



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.

FES in Asia

This website gives you regular updates of FES regional projects and activities across our Asia country offices.

It offers news articles on current debates and a range of research publications and policy briefs to download.  


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