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SINGAPORE – Last Tuesday, the World Health Organization announced more than 230,000 new global cases of COVID-19 logged in 24 hours—the worst day on record up to that point. Alongside these new cases were an additional 5,000 deaths and a warning that the current wave of infection is nowhere near the end of this crisis.
This troubling news came exactly a week before the virtual meeting of the APEC Emergency Preparedness Working Group (EPWG) scheduled for tomorrow. When Asia-Pacific emergency officials gather it is often under the context of seismic disturbances or weather events, the worst of which result in thousands of casualties, billions of dollars in property damage, and billions more in protracted business interruption losses. APEC member economies are said to bear the brunt of 70 percent of the world’s natural disasters. They border the Pacific Ocean, which is plagued by seasonal hurricanes, and are situated along the Circum-Pacific Belt of volcanoes and earthquake-prone areas. Needless to say disaster-response agencies in this region are crewed by seasoned veterans. But no one was truly prepared for the emergency that hit us in 2020.
This time around, the pandemic will dominate the working group’s agenda. COVID-19 is undoubtedly a crisis in health and has caused the worst economic calamity so far in this century which had to go through the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Minimizing the damage this pandemic is dealing to our populations calls for changes in our healthcare and medical systems, diversifying supply chains, and ensuring that our economies are more resilient and inclusive.
But managing the spread of this virus has all the hallmarks of disaster preparedness and response, only multiplied a hundred fold. When a typhoon is expected to make landfall, governments call on people in coastal areas to hunker down or evacuate. Some may follow, some may resist, but—economic ripples aside—the consequences of either will be felt within these communities.
The human loss due to the deadliest storms in history amount to a single day at the height of this crisis. Advisories during a pandemic cast a wider net, covering longer periods, and the ramifications of noncompliance, inconsistent communication and lack of coordination have the potential to exacerbate the crisis, even spilling across borders.
A highlight of the EPWG meeting will be a session of information sharing between the region’s members. Volunteer economies will present their practices in response to COVID-19. It seems simple enough but essential. The borderless nature of the epidemic makes regional cooperation and policy coordination imperative. If carried through, this exercise could translate to unilateral developments in policy based on best practices, of which there are many among member economies. The best case scenario is that these are applied multilaterally across the region.
Positive outcomes should not end there. International forums have been criticized for being talk shops, but discussion today will lead to outcomes tomorrow. In this case the desired outcome is better resilience as a region against the next disaster. This means building capacity to immediately deploy emergency services and maintain them over long periods. It also means we should make certain our economies have the ability to cushion even the poorest citizens and smallest businesses from economic fallout, the wherewithal to keep institutions functioning and to keep trade going and food and supplies flowing. We need to be quick to implement economic policies and decisive in our use of resources come time for reconstruction.
We’re looking at updated joint frameworks, action plans, checklists and toolkits that not only anticipate the next pandemic, but the next crisis that has not yet happened but may conceivably happen, just as COVID-19 was unprecedented but not beyond the bounds of imagination. It was not even the first pandemic the region has faced.
APEC economies have the most varied and extensive experience in dealing with calamities, from earthquakes to wildfires, super typhoons to pandemics. As a non-binding, informal and flexible organization, the APEC forum was designed to be a test kitchen for creative solutions. It would therefore be an ideal contributor to any conversation about an effective multilateral response to unexpected crises.
Dr Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria is the Executive Director of the APEC Secretariat.