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Opinion

World must act now to protect Asia's most vulnerable from COVID-19

Coronavirus threatens economic, social and medical well-being of millions

| Southeast Asia
Homeless women wearing masks sit on a hand cart in Mumbai on Mar. 29: while we stay in our homes to fight COVID-19, let us remember that we are also fighting for those whose dwellings are less than adequate.   © AP

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)

While we may not be able to join hands in person, we must continue uniting to fight the COVID-19 pandemic wherever we may be.

COVID-19 is spreading across the world at an alarming pace. The escalating outbreak has brought devastating outcomes to our well-being and overwhelmed our health systems.

In Asia and the Pacific, the impact of COVID-19 has been tremendous due to the high concentration of people, economic activities and resource consumption. Economic shocks have already begun, and the economic and social well-being of informal laborers in the service sector are particularly vulnerable. The crisis has shown how tightly the Asia-Pacific region is woven into the economic and social fabric of the world.

The magnitude of this pandemic has prompted U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to urge that we "come to the aid of the ultra-vulnerable, millions upon millions of people who are least able to protect themselves."

I echo his call to step up for those most at risk. As the virus moves to low-income countries, we are at a pivotal point where we must act immediately to leave no one behind.

We have already experienced a universal response resounding across the world: stay home. This global appeal has been a crucial petition to curb the further spread of the virus. Yet the phrase assumes we have a home, and that it is adequate for basic needs. Neither is fully true for the poorest in our region.

They often work in the informal sector or in small and medium enterprises. The economic fallout of COVID-19 has already resulted in a sudden decline in revenue, translating to countless lost livelihoods for informal daily wage earners. The majority of women in the region are in informal employment, compounding their responsibilities of unpaid care work.

Living conditions for the poor are often crowded, with limited access to sanitation, making it difficult to protect themselves against the new coronavirus. That is why our first responses should prioritize these people while cushioning the economic shocks to build a better home for all.

People with face masks are seen at a Chawl, a type of residential building, in Mumbai, pictured on Mar. 22: living conditions for the poor are often crowded.   © AP

The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for governments in the region to strengthen health and social protection systems. Over 60% of the Asia-Pacific population lacks access to social protection. Many live and work in unsafe conditions, placing them at higher risk of contracting a disease.

In Asia and the Pacific's aging societies, older persons are at higher risk, not only because of underlying health conditions, but also because they may be without caregivers for support.

Investment must be directed toward providing universal health coverage and a social protection floor, especially for marginalized groups. Social protection serves as a stabilizer in times of uncertainty and builds resilience against shocks and crises over the life cycle. It also drives economic growth by building a stronger and healthier workforce. Without protection measures, the pandemic will continue to widen inequality gaps.

The unprecedented scale of disruption to transport has also provided an impetus to strengthen connectivity and supply chains. By reviewing transport and trade regulations, countries can ensure the timely delivery of vital medical equipment. Connectivity can make the difference between life and death.

In addition to physical connectivity, investments in information technology and digital connectivity are crucial to expanding services like health care to underserved populations. Those with the least access to innovation become the most vulnerable.

We must work to reduce inequalities in broadband connectivity and bridge the digital divide. At the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, we will continue to support this critical infrastructure need.

Finally, COVID-19 calls us to reflect on the intimate relationship between humans, animals and the environment. Climate change and deforestation have contributed to deteriorating ecosystems, losses in biodiversity and faster transmission of diseases. Yet temporary reductions in both carbon emissions and energy demand during the outbreak have given the environment breathing space.

Let us seize this opportunity to promote sustainable, eco-friendly practices. Low oil and gas prices offer a chance to implement reforms that fight climate change and policies to decarbonize our economies. Reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions can live on through sustainable transport measures.

When alternative approaches to mobility have dramatically changed our daily lives, we can leverage these means to advance environmental protection policies that set viable living standards and consumption cycles.

As we face this unprecedented challenge, there has never been a greater need for regional cooperation. The health and well-being of every country matters for the whole region. With political determination and strong partnerships we can minimize negative impacts and strengthen resilience.

While we stay in our homes to fight COVID-19, let us remember that we are also fighting for those whose dwellings are less than adequate. In our collective response, let us seize this opportunity to build a better home for everyone in Asia and the Pacific.

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