COVID-19’s impact on ASEAN livelihoods

Danial Norjidi

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat recently partnered with The Asia Foundation to launch the ‘ASEAN Rapid Assessment: The Impact of COVID-19 on Livelihoods across ASEAN’.

According to a press statement, the publication aims to inform the regional response to the pandemic, and focusses on key challenges in the social welfare, labour, education and training sectors. The initiative is supported by The Rockefeller Foundation and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“A team of specialists conducted the ASEAN Rapid Assessment through a desk review of publicly available data,” stated in the press release.

“On August 5-7, the ASEAN Secretariat organised a virtual Expert Dialogue to enable sectoral body representatives and leading experts to discuss the preliminary findings.

“Based on inputs from the ASEAN Senior Labour Officials Meeting (SLOM), Senior Officials Meeting on Social Welfare and Development (SOMSWD) and Senior Officials Meeting on Education (SOM-ED), the report reflects several policy responses and considerations by ASEAN member states’ (AMS) governments,” it said.

The ASEAN Rapid Assessment looks at how COVID-19 and containment measures have impacted the social welfare, labour, and education and training of ASEAN populations across 10 member states.

It consolidates measures prompted by ASEAN member states to curb the spread of the virus and to provide immediate assistance to workers, students and vulnerable populations. In addition, it acknowledges various regional mechanisms and frameworks leveraged by ASEAN leaders and ministers to promote collective responses.

According to the report, “across Southeast Asia, workers have been hit hard by the pandemic’s economic toll, particularly those in informal labour markets. Additionally, unemployment rises rapidly – global data suggests that unemployment hit women workers the hardest. School closures have worsened the situation, affecting millions of students and their families.

“In ASEAN, and globally, policymakers must balance public health and economic concerns. The severity of the pandemic’s impact varies across countries, largely depending on the capacity of public health systems, the size of the informal sector, initial government containment measures, and economic stimulus responses.

“Evidence suggests that social distancing, quarantine measures, and travel restrictions help contain the spread of the virus, but these measures also create a serious economic cost, especially in countries that depend on trade and tourism. If ASEAN continues to experience outbreaks of the virus, it will be increasingly difficult to close parts of the economy because of lingering economic damage from the first wave and increased social and political opposition to shutdowns”.

The ASEAN Rapid Assessment provides national and regional recommendations for policymakers in shaping inclusive policies and programmes to help ASEAN people – especially those with particular vulnerabilities – resume their livelihoods and support the region during the recovery period.

It was shared that these recommendations were offered at a critical juncture when ASEAN contemplated its post-2020 sectoral work plans and broader COVID-19 recovery framework.

The report stated: “Global estimates of the impact on economies and societies tend upwards with each revision – more poverty, more jobs lost, more businesses closed. Recognising the limits to fiscal expansion and the need to maintain macroeconomic stability, policymakers face very difficult policy choices as they seek a balance between short- and long-term impacts.”

It also highlighted that shaping the new normal means investing in people.

“As much as possible, ASEAN member states should refrain from reducing spending on education, training, and social protections for current and future workforces: the region’s human capital. Instead, ASEAN member states should take the opposite direction to prepare the region’s citizens for productivity and flexibility in the future post-COVID-19 world.

“Doing so will mean taking the principle of equity seriously. The poor and vulnerable have been and will be the worst hit: after the crisis, they will need support to prevent them from falling into destitution and to enable them to recover their livelihoods. This, too, will take investment and commitment,” it said.

The report added that despite all this, there are opportunities: “In a moment of global optimism, the phrase ‘build back better’ has caught on, highlighting the recognition that the ‘old normal’ was inadequate, inequitable, and involved a great deal of poverty and suffering, not to mention an ongoing climate crisis.

“Sometimes it takes a critical juncture, such as a global pandemic, to enable a leap forward into something that is better than what is left behind. With that sentiment in mind, this report contributes to a dialogue about what ‘building back better’ might mean in ASEAN.”