Working together for effective pandemic response

Danial Norjidi

Business leaders from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Business Advisory Council (ABAC) recently announced the ABAC COVID-19 Report, which contained the Council’s recommendations to respond to the immediate impact of the pandemic and lay the groundwork for economic recovery and build resilience in the region.

The report was presented to APEC Ministers Responsible for Trade, who met virtually on July 25.

In a press statement, ABAC Chair Dato’ Rohana Tan Sri Mahmood underscored the need to keep markets for goods, services and investment open to respond to the immediate impact of the pandemic.

“A global pandemic requires a coordinated global response,” she said. “In a deeply integrated and interconnected world, it does not make sense for any economy to seek to be self-sufficient in the essential tools to fight the pandemic. Open and non-discriminatory markets will ensure that goods and services can reach those in most urgent need. Likewise, continued investment in the region will be important to countering the economic fallout from the pandemic.

“We must intensify efforts to enhance the financial inclusion of MSMEs and their participation in international trade through a more robust enabling environment and capacity building for digital transformation,” she said

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of a robust digital connectivity to promote economic participation and drive inclusive growth. The statement noted that APEC economies should foster the development of more secure, accessible and affordable digital infrastructure for all and of free and secure flows of data across borders.

It was shared that there should also be a commitment to sharing research findings and vaccine solutions on a free and open basis.

Trade needs to play a central role in economic recovery. Dato’ Rohana said, “Now more than ever, we need to stay the course on trade and investment liberalisation and not regress from free trade. We need to constantly remind ourselves that the pursuit of open markets in the region has lifted millions of people out of poverty and not turn our back on globalisation.”

The statement added that APEC economies must work collaboratively to plan for the re-opening of borders.

ABAC has proposed the establishment of a temporary APEC coordination body as soon as possible to provide guidance for the orderly re-opening of borders and development of quarantine protocols. This body would collaborate, share information and evaluate available data against agreed criteria, that would enable all APEC economies to assess when and how to open borders and fully reconnect with other economies as safely as possible.

In addition, ABAC has called on the region’s trade ministers to take the lead in a credible, relevant and strengthened World Trade Organization (WTO) in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Globally, we face significant health and economic challenges. Fundamentally, trade can and must be at the centre of tackling both the immediate crisis and of laying the groundwork for a return to growth. The WTO is core to that effort,” said Dato’ Rohana.

She explained that ABAC had issued a statement of support for a reformed WTO ahead of the meeting of APEC Ministers Responsible for Trade on July 25, and added that ABAC had been deeply concerned at the levels of human suffering and severe economic contraction caused by the pandemic.

“Our message to ministers is that global problems demand global solutions – and the WTO’s multilateral rules-based system must be at the heart of those solutions,” said Dato’ Rohana. “We are calling on APEC economies to lead a process of reform in the WTO to ensure that trade rules remain fit-for-purpose.”

She underlined the need to liberalise trade in essential medical supplies and facilitate the movement of essential workers, so that for this and any future pandemics, those critical products and services can get to where they are needed most. Likewise, APEC economies should reaffirm their commitment to well-functioning agriculture markets, so that we do not add a food security crisis to the disruption of the pandemic.

“We also need to ensure that the WTO’s rules remain relevant and credible. It is imperative that we get the WTO’s dispute settlement system fully functioning again by appointing new members to the Appellate Body. We need more transparency around what economies are doing on trade. We must complete the unfinished business of the Doha Round, including eliminating fisheries subsidies, making meaningful cuts to trade-distorting domestic support in agriculture and helping services and investment to work better,” she said.

Dato’ Rohana affirmed that the WTO needed to stay responsive to modern business and social concerns. She said there is a need to review the rules in other areas to ensure that they are doing the job, and that the rules must also be updated for the digital age and support aspirations for sustainable and inclusive growth.

“That means substantive outcomes on e-commerce and a permanent moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmission, tools to transition to a low-carbon economy by eliminating inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, and better ways for women and small businesses to succeed in trade,” she added.