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Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on South-East Asia - July 2020

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Executive summary

The health, economic and political impact of COVID-19 has been significant across SouthEast Asia, but the virus has not spread as rapidly here as in other parts of the world. There is much to learn from the response to date of countries in the subregion as governments have acted swiftly and despite limited fiscal space to contain the pandemic and avoid its worst effects.

Nonetheless, as in many other parts of the world, the pandemic has inflicted real suffering, with a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable, and it has highlighted prevailing inequalities, concerns over governance, and the unsustainability of the current development pathway. It has exacerbated existing risks and revealed new challenges, including to peace and security, as well as human rights.

This policy brief examines how the eleven countries of South-East Asia are coping with the immediate impacts of COVID-19, focusing on the subregion’s socio-economic response and providing four sets of recommendations for a recovery that leads to a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive future:

  • Tackling inequality needs to be the central feature of both short-term stimulus measures and long-term policy changes and measures for building back better. Policies could prioritize the reduction of inequalities in income, wealth and access to basic services and social protection. This necessitates increased investments to strengthen health systems in the subregion and accelerate progress towards universal health care.
    Short- and long-term measures responding to the needs of vulnerable groups – people in the informal economy, women and girls, persons with disabilities, migrants and refugees – are necessary, recognizing that nobody is safe until everybody is safe.

  • Bridging the digital divide across SouthEast Asia would ensure that people and communities are not left behind in an increasingly digital world, where services and support are increasingly based on digital awareness, literacy and access.

  • Greening the economy needs to be a priority and, to that end, South-East Asian nations could embed long-term sustainability and inclusivity in their COVID-19 response and recovery packages, including scaling up investments in decarbonizing economies.

  • Upholding human rights and good governance practices remains an important bedrock. Building back better, by definition, needs to include respecting and fulfilling fundamental human rights and protecting civic space. All governments in the subregion have supported the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire, and it will be important for countries to translate that commitment into meaningful change on the ground by ensuring that COVID-19 responses address conflict situations.

At the country-level, the United Nations is supporting government responses to COVID-19 by providing essential medical supplies, offering technical and financial support for social protection programmes, assessing the socio-economic impacts of the virus and developing mitigation strategies. Other efforts include supporting the needs of refugees and returning migrants, helping governments with COVID-19 risk communication and addressing the surge in violence against women and children during the pandemic.