Developing countries in Asia and the Pacific are experiencing unbalanced Covid-19 tolls.
Grim milestones in infections and deaths have left many devastated. Yet, we must look at the economic and social impacts in small-island developing states (SIDS), where setbacks are likely to undo years of development gains and push many people back into poverty.
Compared to other developing countries, SIDS in the Asia-Pacific region have done well in containing the spread of the virus. So far, available data indicates relatively few cases of infections, with 15 deaths in Maldives, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Yet, while rapid border closures have contained the human cost of the virus, the economic and social impacts of the pandemic on SIDS will place Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) even farther out of their reach.
This is worrying as SIDS in Asia and the Pacific were only on track to reach SDG 9: industry, innovation and Infrastructure, and SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, as they had in fact regressed in SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, a crucial driver of inclusive development and key to reaching all SDGs.
One reason SIDS economies have been severely impacted by Covid-19 is their dependence on tourism. Tourism earnings exceed 50 per cent of GDP in the Maldives and Palau and comprised 30 per cent in Samoa and Vanuatu in 2018. Measures to contain the pandemic, including restricting entrance and halting international travel, will have a profound impact on the development of these economies this year and beyond, with estimates of international tourist arrivals declining globally by 60-80 per cent this year. The pandemic has particularly affected the cruise ship industry, which plays an important role in many SIDS.
The severe impact of Covid-19 on these economies is also a result of heavy reliance on fisheries, which represent a main source of SIDS marine wealth and bring much-needed public revenue. The coronavirus crisis will jeopardise these income streams as a result of a slowdown in fisheries activity. However, it is important to note that the pandemic may also create a small window for stocks to recover if it leads to a global slowdown of the commercial fishing industry.
Despite the tourism and fisheries sectors’ susceptibility to shocks, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific’s latest report, The Asia-Pacific Countries with special needs development report: Leveraging ocean resources for the sustainable development of small island developing states, emphasises fisheries and tourism will remain drivers of sustainable development in small island developing states in Asia and the Pacific. They are among the most important sectors in their contribution to output and their importance for livelihoods.
In the short term, addressing the consequences of the pandemic must take priority, but the long-term global context will usher in an era supportive of tourism development in Asia-Pacific SIDS. This is due to an increasing demand from the emerging middle class of developing Asia and an ageing society in developed countries on the Pacific Rim.
As part of the post-virus recovery, new foundations for sustainable tourism and fisheries in Asia-Pacific SIDS must be built. These sectors must not only have extensive links to local communities and economies, but also be resilient to external shocks. Enhancing economic resilience must focus on building both the necessary physical infrastructure and creating institutional response mechanisms.
For example, a “green tax” for tourists can generate revenues for environmental protection. Such fees serve as additional benefit for local populations and regulate the impact of tourism on the SIDS’ fragile natural environment. SIDS may consider innovative financing instruments such as blue bonds and debt for conservation swaps to expand their fiscal space. Open data sharing, and the collection, harmonisation and use of fisheries data can be strengthened for integrated and nuanced analysis on the state of fish stocks.
Given the limited capacity of the healthcare systems of many Asia-Pacific SIDS, shutting down access to these economies was a wise and necessary short-term policy choice. Opening “travel bubbles” with countries where the virus has been brought under control is now important.
In the longer term, the effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development must take priority. This entails ensuring sustainable use of existing ocean resources and developing sectors that provide productive employment, including specific types of tourism and fisheries.
SIDS can do more to embrace the blue economy to foster sustainable development, and greater regional cooperation is an important element for creating an enabling framework. Regional cooperation is especially important given the nature of fisheries as a common property resource and the remote locations of most Asia-Pacific SIDS.
Covid-19 has provided a stark reminder of the price of weaknesses in health systems, social protection and public services. It also provides a historic opportunity to advocate for policy decisions that are pro-environment, pro-climate and pro-poor. Progress in our region’s SIDS through sustainable tourism and fisheries are vital components of a global road map for an inclusive and sustainable future.
Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the UN under-secretary-general and executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
THE NATION (THAILAND)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK