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Why Asia is poised to leapfrog the West on its way to a fast pandemic recovery

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
Syed Munir Khasru
December 23, 2020


As the world prepares for the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, Asia is on target for a fast economic recovery. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development projects that China, Asia’s largest economy, will return to 8 percent growth in 2021, compared to 3.2 percent for the United States. The Asian Development Bank expects the Asian economy to rebound by 6.8 percent next year.

While East Asia has been the driver of advanced technology during this pandemic, South Asia has been able to draw on its lessons in epidemic and disaster management. Asia has become the new frontier not just for global trade and capital, but also knowledge creation, culture and digitalisation.

As key technology, capital and market providers, Asia’s economies and populations have proved resilient and diligent, ready to play a leading role in shaping the next phase of globalisation.

Many Asian nations, particularly in East Asia, practice a culture of discipline and adherence to instructions, which has empowered governments to tackle the pandemic effectively. The region’s experience with epidemics has also helped authorities craft their strategies.

Asians’ response has largely been in contrast to the West’s anti-mask and anti-lockdown rallies. Vietnam has been exemplary with its aggressive containment and cost-effective control measures, showing Asian countries’ ability to act swiftly.

Asia also regularly deals with infectious diseases, including 70 percent of the world’s dengue cases. Though many countries in the region lack the infrastructure to support a surveillance and emergency response system, they are continually working towards it.

Natural disasters, particularly in South Asia, add to the development of these emergency systems, leading to fast and dynamic changes in infrastructure. This makes possible the development of flexible strategies and a “build back better” approach, rather than “business as usual”.

Bangladesh is a prominent example in its response to deadly cyclones, having constructed early warning systems, cyclone shelters, coastal embankments and evacuation plans, while raising community awareness.

Singapore is another example, dovetailing its technological capabilities with people’s adherence to rules and discipline. It has, for example, developed a rapid Covid-19 response through a national WhatsApp channel and Gowhere website to educate and update as well as tell citizens where to collect masks and special subsidies.

Singapore, with its low number of Covid-19 cases, is a prime example of a disciplined, mature and informed population respecting government advice.

A key factor in Asia’s resilience is its rapid technological development, particularly in East Asia and India, where investment in intraregional tech start-ups has increased.

With 50 per cent of the world’s largest technology companies based in Asia and four fast-rising innovation hubs spread across the region in Wuhan, Jakarta, Yangon and Hyderabad, Asia is becoming the key driver of technological advancement.

This advancement has been led by a dynamic economy and a young population rapidly transitioning from lower to middle class, with vast resources for innovation, and access to quality intellect at competitive prices. The sharp rise in literacy across Asia has also led to productive employment.

The OECD estimates that China and India will account for over 60 per cent of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) graduates by 2030 in comparison to 4 per cent in the US and 8 per cent in Europe.

As an innovative and entrepreneurial middle class grows in leading Asian economies such as China, India and Indonesia, the consumer market is also changing rapidly, with a preference developing for domestic goods over Western imports as tighter regulations drive out poorer-quality products.

This has nurtured the success of the likes of Alibaba, Samsung, WeChat, Toyota and Huawei, and increased Asia’s global presence. E-commerce revenue in Asia is projected to reach US$1.4 trillion this year, compared to US$425 billion for Europe.

Epidemics are not the only motivation for the coming together of Asia, where the building of a resilient economy has been at the forefront of partnerships.

The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) last month by 15 Asia-Pacific nations is a milestone – the trade pact covers a market that accounts for 30 per cent of the world economy. In addition, Asean has long been a force for regional development and growth. These networks bind both Asian economies and populations.

However, there are caveats to regional progress. India-China rivalry and the India-Pakistan conflict in Kashmir are flash points. Bringing western Asia into the fold is a difficult task that needs to be explored. China’s contentious Belt and Road Initiative may not be the only trajectory for a more connected Asia.

Asia’s united response and technological transformation have had a positive impact. This Asian boom should inspire the region to deepen its ties with lower-income countries so they, too, can catch up.

As culture, technology and unity propel Asia to the global forefront, greater attention to the education and health care of marginalised populations can reinforce this transformation. With economic growth and population pliancy, a shift to sustainable practices is essential.

Vulnerabilities in areas such as poverty, health care and climate change impact are major obstacles to progress. These complications call for regional cooperation to become global. Like the rest of the world, Asia is preparing for the affordable and accessible distribution of vaccines to its population, much of it deep in poverty.

Asia’s bigger goal is to bounce back from the economic shock of the pandemic. Its resilience places it in an advantageous position to jump ahead of its Western counterparts on its way to recovery.

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