Where To Next?
Leaders reflect on what two years of battling the pandemic and related challenges has taught them, and how they are preparing for a hoped-for year of recovery.
The world has entered its third year of living with a global pandemic. We have witnessed almost 300 million Covid-19 cases with 5.47 million lives lost, yet the toll might have been much worse but for an almost superhuman global effort to develop effective vaccines in record time.
Yet even though many countries have successfully vaccinated large swathes of their populations, and booster shots are now being administered, a new challenge has emerged from the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant.
As the pandemic drags on, leaders in the public and private sectors have been looking back on what they have learned over the past two years, and considering how they can sustainably and effectively build roads to recovery.
That was one of the core themes of the Reuters NEXT virtual global conference, a three-day event last month that drew on the experiences of 150 leaders from political, business, social and other spheres.
For Singapore, which received a mix of cheers and brickbats from its citizens for its Covid-19 management, Minister for Health Ong Ye Kung said one of the lessons learned for him was that plans for such a life-threatening health crisis are very much in need, and the time to start planning for the next crisis is now.
Singapore, like many other Asian countries that experienced Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) in 2003, has built up a solid health infrastructure including the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, and set up a contact tracing system as well as engaged 1,000 medical practitioners to be a part of the system.
However, even when one has a plan and steps to follow for when a health crisis happens, "the virus doesn't follow your plan … it has a mind of its own and a life of its own", said Mr Ong.
The living dynamic of the human and the virus has led to the second lesson which is the need to adapt. In the first year when a lot was still not very well known about Covid-19, Singapore responded by using its Sars playbook. It played out well, keeping infections in check with the exception of surges in migrant worker dormitories. Two years on, the city-state of 5.7 million has recorded just 834 deaths from the disease.
As medical science started to catch up with the virus and vaccines became available, the government started to switch its strategy to living with the virus as endemic. Around 94% of those eligible in Singapore have now been vaccinated, while 23% of the population has received a booster shot.
Still, Mr Ong admits the shift in October last year "was a big mindset change", which led to the most important lesson learned: trust.
"In this whole response against the pandemic, trust is at the centre of everything," he said. "Trust among people, between people and institutions and how, as a whole, you can respond as a society knowing that everyone just does their part. We can then overcome this."
Mr Ong said the challenges remained daunting as the virus mutates and can develop new behaviours. "As we learn, we need to communicate with people," he said. "Sometimes what you feel is the correct thing to do, the virus proves you wrong and you have to admit that there was a wrong judgement, then make a switch."
He pointed out that it took a great deal of patience and understanding from the public. Communication as frank and honest as possible is therefore an essential tool in the process of trust-building.
That sentiment was echoed by Audrey Tang, the digital minister of Taiwan, another country that has won plaudits for its pandemic management and public communication.
"Trust is easy if you build long-term relationships, and build them on the fundamental idea of alignment -- that we are all in this together -- and radical transparency," Ms Tang told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a recent interview.
Mr Ong said the process needs to be backed with data from scientists around the world that can be presented intuitively so that the general public can understand it as well.
"I hope that whatever liberty that we now gradually, progressively can return back to the people, we can keep it for next year, even as a new wave arrives," he said.
NEW ZEALAND LEARNS
Another country that has been looked up to as a poster child for how to deal with Covid-19 is New Zealand. Thanks to its remote location and swift, decisive responses led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the country of 5.1 million has managed to record a modest 14,467 cases and 51 deaths so far.
"We are watching closely what is happening globally," Ms Ardern told the Reuters NEXT forum. "One of the benefits that New Zealand has had is the ability to observe seasonal impacts of Covid around the world," she said, using Europe which is now in winter and experiencing another Covid wave as an example.
"It gives us the ability to see the impact of things like waning immunity. It gives us the ability to see what happened with public health restrictions or ease quickly."
This explains why New Zealand's border reopening, originally scheduled for Jan 17, has now been put off to the end of February as Europe is now seeing cases surging again because of the rapid spread of Omicron.
As the Pacific Island nation continues to impose some of the toughest measures against the virus, Ms Ardern reflected on how not only New Zealand but countries around the world could better lay the groundwork to deal with future health crises.
"I hope that we will have the infrastructure built into our health systems to widely and equitably disperse vaccines in the future," she said. "Not just domestically but the international infrastructure to fund in distributing it as quickly as possible."
As the chair of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum last year, one of New Zealand's achievements was to reduce and remove any friction such as customs processing at borders for vaccines and related consumables, she pointed out.
Ms Ardern said she hoped the existing guidelines would continue to be carried on under the chairmanship of Thailand this year.
One takeaway from the protracted outbreak for Ms Ardern is that information sharing among the scientific community is essential. Networking provided "good intelligence" about key information including emerging measurement of antibodies, use of whole-genome sequencing, and other critical tools, she noted.
"The more we build an integrated science community, where our health teams share information, we will be able to respond in a much more agile way."
Besides basic hygiene, Ms Ardern pointed out the importance of ventilation, which people will need to adopt more widely in the future. A greater focus on ventilation measures in residential buildings, workplaces and schools will be seen.
Both Mr Ong and Ms Ardern pointed out that some societies where mask-wearing has not caught on very successfully with the public might also adopt this practice. Mr Ong hopes it becomes a norm in Singapore in the future.
Vaccinated travel and testing might also be the new normal in the foreseeable future, as well as the creation of travel lanes based on risk, as Singapore has done, said Mr Ong.
Being a financial hub for the region, Singapore has welcomed professionals and investors while its executives and students have boarded flights abroad for work and study, because Singapore "needs to connect with the world", he said.
"This is what the Singapore economy is like. This is how we earn a living (by) connecting ourselves with the world."
By setting up vaccinated travel lanes (VTL) based on countries and regions where the infection rate is similar to or better than in Singapore, allowing in vaccinated travellers and testing them at the borders will be one of the ways the nation can bounce back economically.
The rapid spread of Omicron has led to a small setback in the VTL programme, with new ticket sales suspended from Dec 23 to Jan 20, while VTL quotas and ticket sales for travel after Jan 20 are to be capped at 50%.
However, the country's Covid-19 taskforce has said that closing borders to vaccinated travellers would not stop the spread of Omicron.
Once the region's Covid hotspot, Indonesia has struggled with vaccination but is starting to see some progress, with 42% of its population now fully inoculated. Southeast Asia's largest economy aims to lift the figure to 55-57% this year in hopes of ensuring herd immunity is achieved as soon as possible, according to Perry Warjiyo, governor of the Bank of Indonesia.
"This is very important because that means the capability of opening up for a number of sectors. This is the issue that we are pushing now," he said.
Amid Omicron anxiety, Indonesia is closely monitoring how advanced countries are coping with the new variant and how it will affect them economically. This will affect the normalisation of monetary and fiscal policy in developed countries, as central banks are worried about the prospect of higher inflation, while governments are aware that heavy spending on Covid support programmes is not sustainable for much longer.
"This is important because those normalisations will impact our ability to grow as well as ensure our external stability," said Mr Warjiyo, adding that policymakers need to cope with the scarring effects of the pandemic as well.
With the US Federal Reserve now seemingly on course to start raising interest rates in March, emerging markets are wary of a possible impact on their currencies.
But Mr Warjiyo said Indonesia was in much better condition to weather any volatility in the rupiah than in the past, when Fed policy tightening routinely triggered heavy outflows of funds from emerging markets.
In addition to the fallout from the pandemic, countries across the world, but especially in Asia Pacific, are keeping a close eye on China's growing influence. In Southeast Asia, Beijing's economic power is clearly visible, with the new Laos-China railway the most recent example, forming one of six economic corridors under Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Tensions over Taiwan are also rising, while Beijing has substantially tightened its grip on Hong Kong. These factors create challenges for countries that want to maintain good relations with as many sides as possible.
In Ms Ardern's view, for the last decade, there has been a different dynamic and range of actors with a strategic interest in the region and it does pose challenges.
While analysts might say that New Zealand's foreign policy toward China is ambiguous, Ms Ardern says her country has "always jealously guarded our independent foreign policy positions, and we continue to do so".
"We do have important alliances that we are a part of and we consider fit for purpose," she said. New Zealand has been a part of Five Eyes, an intelligence-sharing arrangement consisting of four other English-speaking countries: the US, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
The latter's relationship with China has soured considerably in recent years, with retaliation back and forth amid disagreements over human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as well as Australia's calls for a more transparent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ms Ardern, for her part, is trying to keep the focus on the importance of trade and economic links.
"We welcome other countries becoming more closely aligned through, for instance, multilateral trade agreements and bilateral trade agreements," she said.
China last year applied for membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), of which New Zealand is a member. Shortly after, Taiwan applied to join the group as well. The two applications are still under review, and how the 11-member body responds will be closely watched.
New Zealand takes a neutral position, as Ms Ardern said "we consider there are benefits to seeing a range of other actors in our region showing greater interest, not just in the in the strategic environment, but the economic architecture".
TRANSPARENCY IN TAIWAN
Taiwan experiences constant tensions from Beijing because of the island's stated desire for independence and its expressions of solidarity with Hong Kong, acknowledged Ms Tang, reflecting on her experience dealing with the pandemic and the related "infodemic" as well as defending democracy.
Taiwan was one of the earliest respondents to the pandemic, resulting in low infection numbers. It was already aware of the dangers of disinformation, said Ms Tang, alleging that China in particular tried to sow public confusion when Tsai Ing-wen won her second term as president. Then Covid came along, compelling authorities to deal with misinformation about the pandemic and vaccinations as well.
Independent fact-checking bodies were used to counter the misinformation and label it as such, instead of taking down the material, said Ms Tang.
"I believe the fact that we have countered the pandemic with no lockdown and the infodemic with no takedown shows that it's not just about defending democracy in a struggle against authoritarianism, but also about advancing democracy," she said.
As part of her commitment to "radical transparency", Ms Tang helped set up Pol.is, an online forum where Taiwanese people can vote for or against policy matters under discussion.
It is a process of "rough consensus" that can be turned into effective regulation, she said, and there is no reply button to prevent toxic and anonymous trolling.
The pandemic showed that citizen engagement can be effective in tackling major challenges, she said, pointing out that South Korea had adopted Taiwan's mask mapping model.
As well, Ms Tang helped Japan with its online dashboard for coronavirus cases.
"The pandemic experience is a good springboard for collaborating more efficiently across nations," she said.